Central Africa Rebels, Government Edge Closer to Talks

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The government of the Central African Republic and rebels who have captured several towns in a sweep across the country said on Monday they were prepared for talks to end the conflict, but both sides set conditions.

The Bangui government said it would not consider dialogue until the fighters withdraw from positions they have seized over the past two weeks, while the rebels demanded a ceasefire.

The government "remains prepared for dialogue... as soon as the withdrawal of the rebels from occupied towns is complete," Administration and Territory Minister Josue Binoua said in a statement.

The mineral-rich Central African Republic, with a population of five million, is notorious for its history of coups and army mutinies and is one of the world's poorest countries.

The Seleka rebel coalition on Friday accepted a call by regional leaders who met in the Chadian capital N'Djamena for peace talks in Libreville, where the Economic Community Community of Central African States (ECCAS) is based.

A rebel spokesman said Seleka had suspended fighting to give planned talks with the government a chance.

But the following day, Seleka said it was resuming its fight and claimed to control the gold-mining town of Ndassima and the central town of Ippy.

"The government demands... that the rebels instantly cease hostilities and withdraw from the occupied towns to give the best chances for the Libreville dialogue," Binoua's statement said.

The heads of state of the six-member ECCAS gave the rebels a one-week deadline to withdraw from their positions in the impoverished country notorious for its history of coups and army mutinies.

"Instead of withdrawing, the rebels took over more towns in flagrant violation of the decision (in N'Djamena)... just 24 hours after the summit," Binoua said.

For their part the rebels on Monday asked President Francois Bozize to implement a ceasefire and said they had stopped operations in the areas under their control to allow for the safe passage of humanitarian aid.

In a statement, the Seleka coalition said it is "announcing the halt of all operations in its positions to allow non-governmental humanitarian groups to bring help to displaced people... and asks the regime of Francois Bozize to observe a ceasefire to pave the way for dialogue."

Rebels from the three groups in the Seleka coalition have been heading steadily southwards from Ndele, a major northern town close to the Chadian border, which they captured on December 15.

They have seized three new towns since Saturday, including Bambari, saying they were responding to "provocations" by army soldiers and demanding a ceasefire before withdrawing from the towns.

They also control the diamond town of Bria.

The coalition took up arms to demand "respect" of different peace deals signed between 2007 and 2011.

They accuse Bozize, who seized power a 2003 coup, of failing to implement the accords.

Bambari residents were jittery on Monday.

"We're kind of afraid, because the Central African armed forces could launch a counter-offensive, and if so we could be caught in the crossfire," Prosper Ngouvota, who runs a bar in the city, told AFP by telephone.

Another resident, Adolphe Gdamba, reported some looting by rebels in the city's business district.

A teacher in Bambari, Eudes Azouaka, said the rebels had rocket-launchers, mortars and Kalashnikovs.

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