Central African Republic president calling for help
The president of Central African Republic on Thursday urgently called on France and other foreign powers to help his government fend off rebels.
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 deeply impoverished country. The current president, Francois Bozize, himself came to power nearly 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 defense 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 Thursday 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 and stole a French flag.
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)." But it was not immediately clear what, if any, dates have been set for those talks.
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.
U.S. officials said Thursday the State Department would close its embassy in the country and ordered its diplomatic team to leave. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to discuss the evacuation publicly.
The United Nations Security Council issued a press statement late Thursday reiterating its concern about the situation in the country and condemned the attacks.
"The members of the Security Council reiterate their demand that the armed groups immediately cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities and cease any further advance towards the city of Bangui," the statement reads.
Bozize's government earlier reached out to longtime ally Chad, which pledged to send 2,000 troops to bolster Central African Republic's own forces. But it was unclear if the Chadian troops had all arrived, and even then, it is far from certain if the combined government forces could withstand rebel attacks.
At least four different rebel groups are involved, though their overall numbers could not immediately be confirmed.
Central African Republic, a landlocked nation of some 4.4 million people, is roughly the size of France. It has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since gaining independence in 1960 and remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
The rebels behind the most recent instability signed a 2007 peace accord allowing them to join the regular army, but insurgent leaders say the deal wasn't fully implemented.
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.
The rebels have claimed that their actions are justified in light of the "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic."
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."