C. Africa rebels agree to peace talks

C. Africa rebels agree to peace talks

Rebels in the Central African Republic said Wednesday they were suspending their advance and would hold peace talks with the government, after regional armies sent reinforcements to stop them reaching the capital.

Soldiers from the multinational African force FOMAC man a position near Damara between the 'red line' separating army soldiers from the Central African Republic and rebels from the Seleka coalition, on January 2, 2013. Rebels said Wednesday they were suspending their advance and would hold peace talks with the government, after regional armies sent reinforcements to stop them reaching the capital.

The Seleka rebel coalition's lightning three-week advance from the north of the country to within striking distance of the capital Bangui in the south has raised fears of a spreading crisis and drawn regional calls for negotiations with the government in the Gabonese capital Libreville.

Rebel spokesman Eric Massi announced the rebels were ready to talk, saying: "I confirm that we have decided to suspend the offensive towards Bangui, and that we will send a delegation to Gabon to participate in peace talks."

A top diplomat told AFP the talks were expected to start on January 8 and would be mediated by Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who was named the region's pointman on dialogue efforts.

Massi said the rebels do not believe President Francois Bozize -- whom they accuse of failing to honour a 2007 peace deal -- is sincere when he offers to take part in unconditional talks and still demand his departure.

"The Seleka coalition is however in favour of peace, and we have always said we do not want to enter Bangui," he said.

Central African nations have begun sending reinforcements to Damara, the last major town between the rebels and the capital, to bolster the Central African Republic's army against the rebels.

The regional troops are fighting under the banner of multinational African force FOMAC, which was launched in 2008 by the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) in a bid to stabilise the coup- and rebellion-prone country.

Northern neighbour Chad, whose President Idriss Deby is an ally of Bozize, has contributed most of the troops to the force, which will reach its full strength of 760 by the end of the week.

FOMAC's commander sternly warned the rebels Wednesday against trying to take Damara -- which sits between Bangui and the rebel-held town of Sibut, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the capital.

"Let it be clear, we will not give up Damara," said General Jean-Felix Akaga.

"If the rebels attack Damara that would amount to a declaration of war and would mean that they have decided to engage the 10 central African states," he told reporters in Bangui.

"I honestly don't think they will go that far."

Bozize on Wednesday sacked his son Jean-Francis as defence minister and took over the portfolio, his office said. He also dismissed army chief of staff Guillaume Lapo.

Bozize had in his New Year address expressed his disappointment at the way the army failed to respond to the rebel offensive.

Akaga said Bangui was now well secured by FOMAC troops and called Damara a "red line" that FOMAC would not allow either side to cross.

He also said the rebels appeared to be a motley crew.

"We do not have direct contact with the rebels, and no one can know their exact number. It would surprise me if the rebels themselves know how many they are. It's a mixture of multiple movements," he said.

-- Civilians take matters into own hands --

In the centre of the country, residents of the village of Ngakobo said four people had died in clashes between villagers and rebels that broke out when a group of rebels tried to loot a local sugar refinery.

Residents saw the rebels raiding the refinery Tuesday and attacked the ambulance they were trying to use to cart off their loot, slashing its tyres, a resident told AFP by phone on condition of anonymity.

"The rebels were furious and opened fire on the residents. They killed two of them. After that, clashes broke out and two rebels were stabbed to death," he said.

Sudan's military meanwhile said Wednesday that it had evacuated more than 40 Sudanese nationals, as well as some Yemeni, Egyptian and Chadian citizens.

In Bangui, civilian supporters of Bozize have taken to erecting roadblocks to prevent any rebel incursion, stopping vehicles to check whether the occupants speak Sango or French.

A national language, Sango is not spoken by the people of the north, a mainly Muslim region where the majority of the rebels come from.

"In our neighbourhood, we were told that a man belonged to a rebel group in the bush. We burned down his house four days ago," a man at a checkpoint said.

Overnight Monday, a young Muslim questioned by these militias tried to escape and was shot dead by soldiers, setting off clashes in which a police officer was killed.

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