Coup in Africa: President flees as Central African rebels seize capital

Coup in Africa: President flees as Central African rebels seize capital

BANGUI, Central African Republic - Agence France-Presse
Coup in Africa: President flees as Central African rebels seize capital

Members of the Seleka rebel coalition are seen in a village outside the town of Damara in the Central African Republic in this January photo. Rebels in the country captured the capital Bangui after forcing their way through a key checkpoint manned by international forces on March 24. AFP photo

Looters and armed gangs roamed the streets of the Central African Republic's capital March 23 after rebels captured Bangui and the coup-prone country's president disappeared.

The fighters from the Seleka rebel coalition fought running battles with government troops in the riverside capital before capturing the presidential palace and declaring victory. They had resumed hostilities this week in the former French colony and moved rapidly south towards Bangui with the aim of ousting President François Bozizé, whom they accuse of reneging on promises made in a January peace deal.

A high-ranking military source confirmed that Bangui was in rebel hands: "What is certain is that they have taken the city." Homes, shops, restaurants and offices -- including the premises of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF -- were looted as armed men roamed the city where electricity supplies have been cut off.

"They break down the doors and loot and then, afterwards, the people come and help themselves too," said Nicaise Kabissou, who lives in the city center.

"There's looting all over town," said a diplomat in the city that lies in the mineral-rich heart of Africa.

South Africa troops in Bangui -- who number around 250 and were supporting government forces -- suffered casualties in clashes with rebels, Brig. Gen. Xolani Mabanga told the SAPA news agency, but he was unable to provide any figures. The International Committee of the Red Cross said injured people were flooding hospitals and medical centres in Bangui, and asked for secure access to the capital.

The whereabouts of Bozizé, who seized power in a coup in 2003, remained a mystery. A well-placed source told Agence France-Presse he had left the country in a helicopter, but did not disclose his destination, while French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed only that he had fled Bangui.

Officials from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville said he was not on their soil, although it would be easy to cross the river Oubangui to reach the DR Congo.

A security source in Kinshasa said 25 members of Bozizé's family had made that short trip to seek refuge in the Congolese town of Zongo.

But he could not say whether Bozizé himself was also there. French President François Hollande called on all parties in the conflict to form a government in accordance with the peace deal reached in January, and asked "the armed groups to respect the population."

France on March 23 called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the deteriorating situation.

It has sent an extra 300 French troops to back up the 250 soldiers already there to protect an estimated 1,250 French nationals living in the landlocked country, the military said in Paris.

The January peace deal made opposition figure Nicolas Tiangaye the head of a national unity government that was due to carry out reforms before elections next year.

It also brought several prominent figures from Seleka, a loose alliance of three rebel movements, into the government. But the deal collapsed after the rebels said their demands, which included the release of people they described as political prisoners, had not been met.

Seleka first launched its offensive in the north on Dec. 10, 2012, accusing Bozizé of not abiding by the terms of previous peace agreements.

Facing little resistance from the army, they seized a string of towns, defying U.N. calls to stop before halting within striking distance of Bangui.

Negotiations brought an end to that offensive and led to the January peace deal reached in Libreville. Col. Djouma Narkoyo, one of the rebel commanders on the ground, said March 23 the rebels were ready to meet with regional African leaders on the crisis but refused to negotiate with Bozizé.

After a decade in power, Bozizé's legacy is an unstable country riddled with corruption, despite natural resources in the form of uranium, gold, oil and diamonds.

The Central African Republic has been unstable since independence from France in 1960 and, despite its mineral wealth, is one of the poorest countries in the world.

It endured a notoriously brutal period under self-declared emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who was overthrown in 1979 in a French-backed coup.