The president of Central African Republic yesterday urgently called on France and other foreign powers to help his government fend off rebels who are quickly seizing territory and approaching this capital city, but French officials declined to offer any military assistance and there was no immediate sign outside nations would intervene.
The developments suggest Central African Republic could be on the brink of another violent change in government, something not new in the history of this resource-rich, yet impoverished country. The current president, Francois Bozize, himself came to power a decade ago in the wake of a rebellion.
Speaking to crowds in Bangui, a city of some 600,000, Bozize pleaded with foreign powers to do what they could. He pointed in particular to France, Central African Republic's former colonial ruler. About 200 French soldiers are already in the country, providing technical support and helping to train the local army, according to the French defence ministry.
"France has the means to stop (the rebels) but unfortunately they have done nothing for us until now," Bozize said.
French President Francois Hollande said yesterday that France wants to protect its interests in Central African Republic and not Bozize's government. The comments came a day after dozens of protesters, angry about a lack of help against rebel forces, threw rocks at the French Embassy in Bangui.
Paris is encouraging peace talks between the government and the rebels, with the French Foreign Ministry noting in a statement that negotiations are due to "begin shortly in Libreville (Gabon)." It was not immediately clear what, if any, dates have been set for those talks, however.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, meanwhile, spoke via phone with Bozize, asking the president to take responsibility for the safety of French nationals and diplomatic missions in Central African Republic.
Central African Republic has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since gaining independence in 1960. The rebels behind the most recent instability signed a 2007 peace accord, allowing them to join the regular army, but insurgent leaders said the deal wasn't fully implemented.
The rebel Union for the Democratic Forces for Unity, known by its French acronym of UFDR, claims that its attacks are justified in light of the "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic."
Already, the rebel forces have seized at least 10 towns across the sparsely populated north of the country, and residents in the capital now fear the insurgents could attack at any time, despite assurances by rebel leaders that they are willing to engage in dialogue instead of attacking Bangui.
Despite Central African Republic's wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped. Filip Hilgert, a researcher with Belgium-based International Peace Information Service, said rebel groups are unhappy because they feel the government doesn't invest in their areas.
"The main thing they say is that the north of the country, and especially in their case the northeast, has always been neglected by the central government in all ways," he said.
But the rebels also are demanding that the government make payments to ex-combatants, suggesting that their motives may also be for personal financial gain.
Bozize, a former military commander, came to power in a 2003 rebel war that ousted his predecessor, Ange-Felix Patasse.
In his address Thursday, Bozize said he remained open to dialogue with the rebels, but he also accused them and their allies of financial greed.
Those allies, he implied, are outside Central African Republic.
"For me, there are individuals who are being manipulated by an outside hand, dreaming of exploiting the rich Central African Republic soil," he said. "They want only to stop us from benefiting from our oil, our diamonds, our uranium and our gold."