BANGUI, Central African Republic, Mar 24 – Rebels in the Central African Republic fighting to topple President Francois Bozize said Sunday they had seized the presidential palace in an assault on the capital Bangui as gunbattles sent panicked residents fleeing.
Fighters in the Seleka rebel coalition advanced into the riverside capital on Saturday after the collapse of a two-month-old peace deal in the notoriously unstable and deeply poor former French colony – ignoring a call for talks to avoid a “bloodbath”.
“We have taken the presidential palace. Bozize was not there,” one of the rebel commanders on the ground, Colonel Djouma Narkoyo, told AFP.
He said the rebels were planning to move on to the national radio station where rebel leader Michel Djotodia planned to make an address.
“Today will be decisive,” Narkoyo said. “We call on our brothers in FACA (the Central African army) to lay down their arms.”
Bozize, who himself led a coup in the landlocked country in 2003, has not been seen since his return from South Africa on Friday and there was no statements from the government Sunday about the latest developments.
Heavy gunbattles erupted at about 0700 GMT, but later the shooting became more sporadic, an AFP correspondent said.
“We head gunfire everywhere in the city centre. It was chaos,” said one witness. “Everyone started running in all directions.”
Narkoyo had told AFP on Saturday the rebels were ready to meet with regional African leaders on the crisis, but refused to negotiate with Bozize.
And he warned that if Seleka – a loose alliance of three rebel movements – captured Bangui, it would set up a new government.
Bangui resident Francis Komgdo, who lives near a checkpoint that effectively marks the entrance to the capital, told AFP the rebels had passed through Saturday in vehicles and motorbikes, occasionally firing in the air.
Gunfire and explosions in Bangui on Saturday saw the streets emptied as local people fled to their homes.
The city was also plunged into darkness last night after rebels sabotaged a hydroelectric power plant in Boali, north of the capital, an official with the Enerca electricity company and residents said.
A spokesman for Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye on Saturday called on the rebels to accept talks to “avoid a bloodbath”.
Tiangaye, an opposition figure, was only appointed as part of the peace deal brokered between the government and the rebels in January, an agreement that broke down last week.
Paris-based rebel spokesman Eric Massi has said the rebel leadership was urging its forces on the ground to refrain from “looting or score-settling with the local population”.
Former colonial power France has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the deteriorating situation, said Romain Nadal, a spokesman for the president’s office.
France had not issued an evacuation order, but the estimated 1,250 French nationals in the country were advised to stay at home, said Nadal.
There were no immediate plans to send reinforcements to back up the 250 French troops in the country to protect them, he added.
The UN Security Council on Friday voiced strong concern about the rebel advances “and their humanitarian consequences” amid reports of widespread summary executions, rapes, torture and the use of children in conflict.
Seleka first launched its offensive in the north of the country on December 10, accusing Bozize of not abiding by the terms of previous peace agreements.
Facing little resistance from an ill-trained and ill-equipped army, they seized a string of towns, defying UN calls to stop before halting within striking distance of Bangui.
They reached a peace deal with the government in January under which Tiangaye became head of a national unity government that was to carry out reforms before national elections next year.
But that deal collapsed this month after the rebels said their demands, which included the release of people they described as political prisoners, had not been met.
The international community has nervously watched the spike in tensions in the landlocked nation of 4.4 million people where Bozize himself seized power in a 2003 coup.
The country has been plagued by coups and army mutinies since its independence from France in 1960.