Bozize submits to talks with rebels in Libreville

Embattled president of the Central African Republic Francois Bozize. PHOTO | AFP 

Leaders of the rebels who have seized key towns in the Central African Republic (CAR) arrived Monday in Libreville for expected talks with the government to end the conflict in the chronically unstable nation.

The CAR's embattled President Francois Bozize also made a quick trip Monday to Brazzaville to meet with his Congolese counterpart, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who is serving as mediator and has said the peace talks could open later this week.

Some 15 members of the Seleka rebel coalition flew on a United Nations-chartered plane from their fiefdom of Bria to Libreville.

Seleka chief Michel Djotodia, who made no statement on arrival in the Gabonese capital, told AFP earlier on a stopover in Chad: "One doesn't make war without also looking for peace."

At a joint press conference in Brazzaville, Sassou-Nguesso stressed that a "military solution was not a good one and there must be negotiations."

For Bozize, the attacks in the CAR were triggered by "elements coming from outside.... We consider them as mercenaries manipulated from outside, who attacked the peaceful Central African people.

"We are trying as much as possible to manage the situation... and we will see what comes out of this dialogue in Libreville," he said before heading back to Bangui.

'Bozize must go'

The rebels have insisted that the departure of Bozize, who has been in power since 2003, should be up for discussion at the negotiations — an issue Sassou-Nguesso said would be addressed in Libreville.

"We cannot interpret, in our role as mediator, the statements of one or the other" side, he said, adding that "all parties have agreed to go to negotiations in Libreville and we will address all these questions among brothers."

The Seleka alliance of three rebel movements launched its assault on December 10 in the north of the CAR.

Since then, it has moved steadily south, capturing a string of key towns with little or no resistance from the poorly equipped and poorly trained army.

They are now in striking distance of the capital Bangui.

At first, the rebels were simply calling on the Bangui government to respect the terms of peace accords signed in 2007 and 2011. As their position strengthened, however, they began calling for Bozize to step down.

The Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) will host the Libreville talks. But the regional bloc has also sent more troops to strengthen FOMAC, its multinational intervention force in the CAR.

They are deployed as a buffer force at Damara, 75 kilometres (45 miles) north of Bangui.

On Saturday, rebel forces captured two more towns and, according to the Central African authorities, and are now positioned just 12 kilometres from Damara, the last major town between them and the capital.

Papal appeal

South African President Jacob Zuma's office announced Sunday it was sending 400 soldiers to the CAR to join troops already deployed there.

One of the rebel groups that make up the Seleka alliance, the Wa Kodro Salute Patriotic Convention (CPSK), denounced that move on Monday. South Africa was rushing to the aid of the "enemies of the Central African people", it said in a statement out of Paris.

"Bozize wants to plunge the country into chaos before his imminent departure," it added.

At the Libreville talks, each delegation will have 15 members, said the CAR's Minister of Territorial Administration Josue Binoua.

The government delegation to Libreville would propose "army reform, an economic stimulus plan and the implementation of a new electoral code," he added.

The political opposition in CAR will also be represented in Libreville, and on Monday its representative, lawyer Tiangaye Nicolas, said that "we are leaving with a lot of optimism, with the conviction that during this meeting important decisions will be taken so that peace can definitively return to the country."

In the Vatican City, Pope Benedict XVI on Monday told ambassadors: "I hope that the talks announced as taking place shortly will restore stability and spare the people from reliving the throes of civil war."

Bozize, a former army general, came to power in a coup in 2003 and has been voted back into office twice, in 2005 and 2011.

This mineral-rich but very poor landlocked country of five million inhabitants has suffered a series of rebellions, coups and attempted coups.

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