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C. Africa PM urges talks with rebels to avoid 'blood bath'

Seleka spokesman and military chief rebel, Colonel Christian Djouma Narkoyo in Grimari, January 18, 2013
Seleka spokesman and military chief rebel, Colonel Christian Djouma Narkoyo in Grimari, north of Damara, 75 kms from the capital Bangui January 18, 2013. Central Africa's prime minister on Saturday called on the rebels who have advanced to within striking

Central Africa's prime minister on Saturday called for talks with rebels who have advanced to within striking distance of the capital to "avoid a blood bath" in the coup-prone country.

The call comes as the Seleka rebel coalition has pushed its way to the gates of Bangui following the collapse of a two-month-old peace deal in the landlocked country, plagued by instability since its independence from France in 1960.

"The prime minister (Nicolas Tiangaye) asks our brothers of the Seleka to get in touch with the national unity government to find a peaceful solution and avoid a blood bath," a spokesman for the premier, Crepin Mboli Goumba, told AFP.

Early Saturday afternoon, the rebels were less than 30 kilometres (20 miles) away from Bangui, having made their way down from the north along two main roads that lead to the capital, Eric Massi, their Paris-based spokesman, told AFP.

In a bid to reassure residents of Bangui, where news of the rebel advance has emptied the streets and led scores to try and flee the city, Massi said the Seleka leadership was calling on all forces -- both rebel and government -- to maintain "order and discipline".

"No looting, robberies, rapes during the day if clashes happen. For us, the main thing is that our troops be self-disciplined," he said.

Seleka said it was open to negotiations with African leaders to resolve the crisis, which has sparked concern at the UN Security Council, but rejected any talks with President Francois Bozize.

Seleka rebels on January 10, 2013 in a village 12 kms from Damara, Central Africa.
Seleka rebels on January 10, 2013 in a village 12 kms from Damara, Central Africa.

"If the heads of state of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) ask it, we are ready to meet them and talk, but not to negotiate with General Bozize," Djouma Narkoyo, one of the rebel military chiefs, told AFP by telephone.

"How many times have we talked with him? It never leads to anything."

He added that if the rebel coalition managed to take Bangui, it would set up a new government.

"We will put in place a transitional government," he said.

Seleka, an alliance of three rebel movements, first launched an offensive on December 10 in the north of the country, 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 key towns, defying UN Security Council calls to stop, before halting within striking distance of Bangui.

They reached a peace deal with the government in early January under which Tiangaye, an opposition member, became head of a national unity government that was to carry out reforms before national elections next year.

But the fragile deal soon collapsed, with rebels saying their demands -- such as the release of political prisoners -- had not been met.

Central African President Francois Bozize at the presidential palace in Bangui on January 8, 2013
Central African President Francois Bozize at the presidential palace in Bangui on January 8, 2013.

At the weekend, Seleka rebels detained five ministers from the new government -- including members of the rebel coalition -- to back their demands for concessions from the authorities.

Bozize then offered to release political prisoners and end a night-time curfew in a bid to head off a showdown with the rebels, but Seleka said this was not enough.

Narkoyo also called for South African troops -- which were deployed in the country at Bozize's request after Seleka's lightning advance in December -- to leave.

Residents in Bangui said a tense calm reigned in the capital Saturday, with some fearfully leaving the city.

"We were so scared last night that we deserted the house to go around 20 kilometres south of Bangui," a teacher told AFP by phone.

"We are waiting to see what will happen."

She said she saw "many people fleeing the city... by taxi, motorbike or on foot."

The international community has nervously watched the spike in tensions in the country.

The UN Security Council said the new troubles "jeopardise the precarious stability" of the Central African Republic, a landlocked nation of 4.4 million people where Bozize seized power in a 2003 coup.

And the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, warned in a statement that her office would investigate and prosecute anyone alleged to have committed crimes in the conflict.

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