Rebels in the Central African Republic are advancing toward the capital, two days after announcing the end of a cease-fire.
A journalist in Bangui with VOA's French to Africa service says the rebels are about 50 kilometers from the city. He says the Seleka rebel alliance has been stopped by government forces and South African forces in helicopters.
The French Foreign Ministry said Friday evening that the rebels are "only a few kilometers" from the capital. A ministry spokesman in Paris called on all sides to protect the civilian population.
Witnesses in Bangui say the streets are empty as people rushed home or tried to flee the city. Schools and banks closed early following reports of the rebel advance.
Earlier Friday, fighters from the Seleka rebel alliance entered Damara, about 75 kilometers north of the capital. In January, a regional peacekeeping force known as FOMAC established a buffer zone at Damara and warned the rebels not to pass.
A source in the FOMAC command tells VOA that peacekeepers did not engage the rebels when they entered Damara. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the rebels have also taken the western C.A.R. town of Bossangoa.
Seleka began its offensive in December, seizing about one third of the country. The rebels later reached a peace deal with the government in regionally-mediated talks, but have accused President Francois Bozize of breaking the agreement.
President Bozize has led the C.A.R. since taking power in a 2003 coup. The president was said to be in South Africa Friday. A local journalist tells VOA that Mr. Bozize's prime minister has sought refuge with the peacekeepers near the Bangui airport.
The C.A.R. has a history of coups and unrest since winning independence from France in 1960.