Rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) fighting to topple President Francois Bozize said yesterday they had seized the presidential palace in an assault on the capital Bangui as gunbattles sent panicked residents fleeing.
Fighters in the Seleka rebel coalition advanced into the riverside capital on Saturday after the collapse of a two-month-old peace deal in the notoriously unstable and deeply poor former French colony — ignoring a call for talks to avoid a “bloodbath.”
“We have taken the presidential palace. Bozize was not there,” one of the rebel commanders on the ground, Colonel Djouma Narkoyo said.
He said the rebels were planning to move on to the national radio station where rebel leader Michel Djotodia planned to make an address.
“Today will be decisive,” Narkoyo said. “We call on our brothers in FACA [the Central African Republic army] to lay down their arms.”
Bozize, who himself led a coup in the landlocked country in 2003, has not been seen since his return from South Africa on Friday and there were no statements from the government yesterday about the latest developments.
“We head gunfire everywhere in the city center. It was chaos,” said one witness. “Everyone started running in all directions.”
Narkoyo had said on Saturday the rebels were ready to meet with regional African leaders on the crisis, but refused to negotiate with Bozize.
And he warned that if Seleka — a loose alliance of three rebel movements — captured Bangui, it would establish a new government.
Bangui resident Francis Komgdo, who lives near a checkpoint that effectively marks the entrance to the capital, said the rebels had passed through on Saturday in vehicles and motorbikes, occasionally firing in the air.
Gunfire and explosions in Bangui on Saturday saw the streets emptied as local people fled to their homes. The city was also plunged into darkness after rebels sabotaged a hydroelectric power plant in Boali, north of the city, an official with the Enerca electricity company and residents said.
A spokesman for CAR Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye on Saturday called on the rebels to accept talks to “avoid a bloodbath.”
Tiangaye was only appointed as part of the peace deal brokered between the government and the rebels in January, an agreement that broke down last week.
The UN Security Council on Friday voiced strong concern about the rebel advances “and their humanitarian consequences” amid reports of widespread summary executions, rapes, torture and the use of children in conflict.