BANGUI, Central African Republic, Mar 25 – Ousted Central African president Francois Bozize has fled to Cameroon, Yaounde said on Monday, after rebels seized power in a rapid weekend assault that killed 13 South African soldiers.
Rebel leader Michel Djotodia said he planned to declare himself president after his Seleka coalition took control of Bangui in the wake of the collapse of a two-month-old peace deal with Bozize’s regime.
Following initial mystery over Bozize’s whereabouts, the president’s office in Yaounde announced in a radio broadcast that he had “sought refuge in Cameroon” and was “awaiting his departure to another host country”.
Meanwhile, South Africa said 13 of its soldiers were killed and 27 wounded in the weekend fighting in Bangui – the country’s heaviest military loss since the end of the apartheid era.
“As a member of the African Union, South Africa rejects any efforts to seize power by force,” President Jacob Zuma told reporters, adding that there were no immediate plans to withdraw troops deployed alongside the weak national army.
South Africa deployed 200 soldiers to the Central African Republic in January to support government troops.
The African Union took swift action amid international concern about the deteriorating security situation in the deeply unstable former French colony, a poor and landlocked nation with unexploited mineral wealth.
“The council has decided to suspend with immediate effect Central African Republic from all African Union activities and to impose sanctions, travel restrictions and an asset freeze on Seleka’s leaders,” said AU peace and Security chief Ramtane Lamamra.
Djotodia, a former civil servant turned rebel leader, said Sunday he would declare himself president but told Radio France Internationale the rebels would respect the terms of a January peace deal and hold free and fair elections by 2016.
Opposition figure Nicolas Tiangaye, appointed prime minister of a national unity government formed as part of the accord that ended a previous Seleka offensive launched late last year, would remain in the post, he said.
Djotodia said he may keep some ministers from Bozize’s clan in his government, pledging: “We are not here to carry out a witch-hunt.”
In a city without electricity and no national radio, Djotodia told Radio France Internationale that “three years from now, we are going to organise free and transparent elections with everybody’s help.”
Bangui residents initially welcomed the rebels, waving palm leaves in celebration, but the optimistic atmosphere quickly turned into anxiety as gangs of armed looters roamed the riverside city, pillaging shops and offices including the premises of the UN children’s agency UNICEF.
Some 20 members of Bozize’s family have crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kinshasa government said.
The international community has expressed concern over the situation in the Central African Republic, which remains one of the poorest nations on earth although it has largely untapped mineral wealth including uranium, gold and diamonds.
The US State Department said Sunday it was “very concerned by the worsening humanitarian situation in CAR and credible, widespread reports of human rights abuses by both national security forces and Seleka fighters”.
It also called for rebels to restore electric power and water supplies to the capital after sabotaging them over the weekend.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the seizure of power by Seleka – a loose alliance of three rebel movements – calling for “the swift restoration of constitutional order”.
French President Francois Hollande called on all parties to form a government in accordance with the January peace deal hammered out in the Gabonese capital Libreville, and asked “the armed groups to respect the population”, thousands of whom have already fled Bangui.
Rebel fighters resumed hostilities last week after they accused Bozize of reneging on the terms of the January deal which aimed to put an end to a previous offensive launched by Seleka in December.
The accord brought several prominent figures from Seleka into the government but it collapsed after the rebels said their demands, which included the release of people they described as political prisoners, had not been met.
Djotodia has pledged to uphold January’s peace agreement, saying: “We will always remain in the spirit of Libreville.”
Seleka launched its first offensive on December 10, accusing Bozize of having failed to honour an earlier peace agreement. They seized a string of towns on their way south but stopped short of Bangui.
The state, which has a population of about 4.5 million, has been unstable since its independence from France in 1960, with a history of coups and mutinies.