A rebel coalition that has been fighting the government in the Central African Republic said Friday that it was calling off a three-day cease-fire ahead of a tense general election on the weekend.
The rebel groups launched an offensive a week ago threatening to march on the capital, Bangui, in what the government described as an attempted coup, but their progress was halted with international help.
The Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) then announced a brief truce before presidential and legislative elections Sunday, which are seen as a crucial test for the troubled country.
But the CPC said in a statement Friday it had "decided to break the 72-hour truce it had imposed on itself and resume its unrelenting march towards its final objective" – taking the capital.
In the statement, the CPC said that it made the decision faced with "the irresponsible stubbornness of the government."
The cease-fire's signatories had "invited the authorities to observe the cease-fire" and called on President Faustin Archange Touadera to suspend the election.
But government spokesman Ange-Maxime Kazagui dismissed the cease-fire on Thursday, saying it was "a non-event" and that "we haven't seen these people stop what they're doing.”
The CPC said the government had "cavalierly rejected" this "chance for peace."
"Several attacks followed on positions occupied" by CPC forces, its statement said.
The authenticity of the statement was confirmed to AFP by two of the main armed groups in the coalition – the 3R and the Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central Africa (FPRC).
'We march on Bangui'
General Bobo, the leader of 3R, told AFP that "now either the government disperses us, or we march on Bangui, which is our final objective."
After a brief lull in fighting on Thursday morning, clashes resumed in Bakouma, about 800 kilometres (500 miles) northeast of Bangui, according to Vladimir Monteiro, spokesman for the U.N.'s MINUSCA peacekeeping force.
The CPC was created on December 19 by armed groups who accuse Touadera, the front-runner in Sunday's election, of trying to rig the vote.
Its components are drawn from militia groups that, together, control two-thirds of the country.
Earlier, the government accused Touadera's ousted predecessor, Francois Bozize, of fomenting a coup with the rebels, a charge he denies.
Gunmen had sought to advance on the main highways toward Bangui but were stopped, according to MINUSCA.
On Tuesday, rebels took the CAR's fourth-largest town, Bambari, 380 kilometres (240 miles) northeast of Bangui. Security forces backed by U.N. peacekeepers regained control the following day.
MINUSCA said Thursday that a 300-strong contingent of Rwandan reinforcements had arrived in the country.
Russia, which recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Touadera's government, has also sent at least 300 military instructors to bolster the CAR's forces.
'I am not afraid'
Sunday's elections are deemed a key test of the strife-torn country's ability to recover stability.
Touadera, 63, is considered a shoo-in for a second term after the CAR's top court barred Bozize, who is on a 2014 wanted list and under U.N. sanctions, from standing.
But a crucial question is whether turnout will be badly affected by violence or intimidation, denting the credibility of the next president and the 140-seat legislature.
On the streets of Bangui on Friday – the last official day of campaigning – more attention seemed to be paid to Christmas celebrations than the looming elections.
"I am not afraid. I'm going to vote on Sunday, and I think peace will return after the elections," said Wallace, 27.
Mineral-rich but rated the world's second-poorest country on the Human Development Index, the CAR has been chronically unstable since independence 60 years ago.