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Insurgents Surround Presidential Palace, Airport in Bangui - 2003-03-15

Violence has broken out in the capital of the Central African Republic, in what appears to be a coup attempt. Gunmen have surrounded the president's palace and the airport.

Reports from the capital, Bangui, say there was panic in the streets as automatic gunfire and artillery fire broke out Saturday afternoon, and truckloads of armed men were seen driving through the city.

Some of the heaviest shooting was heard near the presidential residence, which appeared to be surrounded. Heavy fighting was also heard near the airport. Both are now reported to be under rebel control.

The national radio station went off the air, and rebel fighters were seen near the offices of the state television station.

The violence erupted while President Ange-Felix Patasse was out of the country, attending a summit in Niger.

The French news agency (AFP), says his plane turned around after it was shot at as it tried to land at the Bangui airport. AFP says he has now landed in Cameroon, but there is no independent confirmation of that report.

Witnesses say the gunmen appear to be rebels loyal to former military chief General Francois Bozize, who led a coup attempt in October. The general fled to neighboring Chad when he failed to gain control of the government.

His fighters still held about half the country until recently, when the government claimed to have re-taken most of its territory.

President Patasse has survived a string of coup attempts since his election in 1993. His army is weak, and he has largely come to depend upon foreign troops to put down rebellion.

The most recent coup attempt in October was foiled by troops from Libya and rebel fighters from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Libyan troops have since left the country, replaced by a Central African peacekeeping force.