— The government of the Central African Republic and a rebel coalition in the north appear to be moving closer to regionally mediated talks planned for next week. In the meantime, a Central African regional force continued to reinforce its position outside the capital, Bangui, on Wednesday, warning both the government and the rebels that further hostilities would not be tolerated.
About 500 Central African regional troops amassed in and around the town of Damara on Wednesday, creating a buffer zone between government forces and the Seleka rebel coalition that has seized one-third of the country in the past three weeks.
The head of the regional force known as FOMAC, General Jean Felix Akaga, said his soldiers will not give up Damara, which is just 75 kilometers north of the capital, Bangui.
He says if the rebels attack Damara, that would amount to a declaration of war and would mean that they have decided to engage the 10 member states of the Economic Community of Central African States, the regional body that sent the FOMAC force.
General Akaga said FOMAC troops are also preventing government troops from advancing north to engage the rebels. He said Damara is secure and the situation is calm and "status quo."
The idea is to stop hostilities and open the way for talks in Gabon's capital, Libreville, on January 10.
Both sides say they are ready for negotiations.
The rebels have been in Sibut, about 180 kilometers from the capital, since Saturday. They are once again pledging to halt their advance to pave the way for talks. They have broken previous promises but said they were only advancing when attacked by government troops.
In Damara Wednesday, the road through town was calm except for 32 pickup trucks laden with heavily armed Chadian soldiers.
Soldiers patrol a street in Bangui, Central African Republic, January 1, 2013.
An end-of-year sign in French reading "happy holidays" hangs over a largely empty street in the capital Bangui, Central African Republic, January 1, 2013.
A bushmeat seller in the market in the Bimbo neighborhood of the capital Bangui, Central African Republic, January 1, 2013.
Soldiers from the Congolese contingent of the Central African Multinational Force (FOMAC) arrive at an airport in Bangui, December 31, 2012.
People wait in line at the BSIC bank in in Bangui, Central African Republic, December 31, 2012.
Central African Republic soldiers walk near a taxi station in Bangui, December 31, 2012.
A Central African Republic soldier walks past a vendor on a street in Bangui, December 31, 2012.
A security guard sits near a closed shop in Bangui, Central African Republic, December 31, 2012.
Chadian troops are here as part of the regional FOMAC force. Additional troops from the Republic of Congo and Gabon were deploying from Bangui to Damara Wednesday.
Many of Damara's mud-brick homes are shuttered in the neighborhood of Ndeo. The few residents remaining said they have sent their families to the bush to wait out the crisis.
Resident Andjipassera Bertin says they have had enough of rebellion. He says their wives, their children, their relatives are suffering out in the bush. It is cold at night, he says, and there are lots of mosquitoes.
Residents said the hospital and the market have closed so they have no way to get medicine and food. They are living off wild yams.
Seleka unites four rebel groups that began fighting the government between 2005 and 2006.
Their demands have evolved from saying the government must implement peace accords signed between 2007 and 2011 to calling on President Francois Bozize to step down. The rebels say they were supposed to be paid to disarm or integrate into the government military.
President Bozize says he is ready for unconditional talks to create a coalition government.