BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC— The Central African Republic capital of Bangui remained tense Tuesday as rebels threatened to take the last major government stronghold, the city of Damara, just 75 kilometers away. President Francois Bozize said he is willing to negotiate a unity government. However, rebels say he must go. It remains to be seen whether or not a negotiated solution is still possible.
Regional leaders are trying to organize peace talks in Gabon on January 10 between the government of the Central African Republic and a northern rebel alliance known as Seleka that has seized a third of the country in less than three weeks.
The rebels continue to edge toward the capital from their southernmost position, the city of Sibut, which is 186 kilometers away.
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.
Bozize said he is ready to negotiate as soon as possible to create a coalition government. He said he will not stand for re-election when his term ends in 2016.
Government ready to deal
Government minister and spokesman for the political coalition behind the president, Cyriaque Gonda, said a lack of funds derailed the disarmament process. He said the government is ready to discuss with rebels how to get it back on track. He added, though, the president resigning is out of the question.
Gonda said this will be the rebels' last chance at the negotiating table.
"This is going to be the last time. We want to put away in Central African Republic the words rebellion [and] politico-military. This is a lexicology that we have discovered here. We are going to put it down at any cost. But the bottom line is to try to create cohesion," said Gonda.
Residents of Bangui say the rebels should come to the table.
A resident named Franck said that if the rebels are truly fighting for Central Africans, then they have made their demands, the president has accepted talks, so now they must begin negotiations. War, he said, cannot solve the country's problems.
Questioning Bozize's trustworthiness
But the rebels say they don't trust Bozize.
In the capital, political opposition leader and former prime minister Martin Ziguele said the president has a track record of breaking promises.
Ziguele said the president seized power through a coup in 2003 and said he wouldn't run in elections, but then he did run. Ziguele said the president has since reneged on resolutions to the political class during a national dialogue in late 2008, including pledges to improve electoral transparency and to enlarge the government. Ziguele said he wants to believe Bozize, but he first needs to see some follow-through on at least one promise.
A strict curfew and fears of a rebel invasion put a damper on New Year's festivities in Bangui as tensions run high.
During the night, a mob of youth set up a roadblock in a residential neighborhood where they reportedly stopped a Muslim man and beat him to death. Muslims are perceived to be from the now rebel-controlled north.
The government is accused of arresting hundreds of civilians in the capital this past week who are from ethnic groups from the north and therefore are perceived to be supporters of the rebellion.
Shifting battle lines
Rebel spokesman Colonel Djouma Narkoyo said they will not negotiate until these people are released.
He said they want dialogue, but cannot go into talks under these conditions. He said the government needs to stop arresting people and release those who already have been taken.
Narkoyo said they will not withdraw from captured territory before negotiations.
The rebels have broken multiple promises to stop advancing south, but blame the moves on attacks by government forces.
Central African leaders have warned rebel fighters not to cross the frontline of Damara, about 75 kilometers, or an hour's drive, outside the capital. The African Union has threatened sanctions.
Government troops have been sorely outmatched so far by Seleka fighters.
At Damara, the national army is backed up by hundreds of Chadian troops and a regional peacekeeping force known as FOMAC. Reinforcements continued to arrive Tuesday from several neighboring countries, including Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon.
Jose Richard Pouambi contributed to this report in Bangui, Central African Republic.