DAKAR, SENEGAL— The government of the Central African Republic [CAR] and a rebel coalition that has seized one third of the country in the past three weeks have agreed to unconditional talks, even as the two sides continued to skirmish in occupied areas and the rebels advance closer to the capital.
The rebel group, known as Seleka, began its lightning offensive in the north on December 10 and is edging closer to the capital, Bangui.
Residents of Sibut, a city just 186 kilometers north of the capital, told VOA Saturday that the rebels have arrived there.
The advance came after government troops tried and ultimately failed to retake the city of Bambari from the rebels on Friday. Bambari is 385 kilometers northeast of the capital.
Government forces are backed by regional troops who are protecting the capital. There are a few hundred Chadian troops and a regional peacekeeping force, called FOMAC, from the Economic Community of Central African States, which said Friday it is sending in reinforcements.
The deputy secretary general of the regional body, Guy Pierre Garcia, lead a regional diplomatic mission to Bangui on Friday.
Garcia said the regional mission looked at both how to open up negotiations, as well as how best to further intervene militarily. He said both the government and the rebels have accepted dialogue without conditions in the interest of not prolonging the crisis. He said the idea is to halt hostilities and open talks as soon as possible.
No date has been announced for the talks, which are planned for early January in Gabon's capital, Libreville.
President Francois Bozize had previously demanded the rebels withdraw from captured territory before he will negotiate. The rebels have threatened to attack Bangui and overthrow the government if it does not come to the table.
Seleka is a coalition of fighters from as many as four rebel groups in the north. The rebels say the government must fully implement 2007 and 2011 peace accords that included paying rebel fighters to disarm and integrating them into the Central African Republic army.
Jose Richard Poambi contributed to this report from Bangui.