The Seleka rebel coalition in the Central African Republic (CAR) seized the city of Sibut, continuing its rapid advance to Bangui, the capital city.
Sibut, a key transportation hub situated only 185 kilometers from the capital, was captured without a fight, given that the government army and Chadian forces had already pulled back to Damara, located at 75 kilometers from Bangui.
The Seleka coalition was launched in August 2012 and is made up of breakaway factions from three former armed groups. It consists of Nureldine Adam’s Wa Kodro Salute Patriotic Convention (CPSK), Dhaffane Mohamed Moussa’s Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), and a dissident faction of the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) led by Michel Djotodja. The first two rebel groups had reached peace agreements with the government and were supposed to cease fighting.
The rebels claim that President Bozize,who gained power in 2003 through a coup and subsequently won elections in 2005 and 2011, has failed to uphold a 2007 peace agreement, and have pledged to depose him unless he started negotiating with them. Among their key requirements, the rebels demand financial compensation and prisoner release as promised in the 2007 agreement, the implementation of the recommendations of the 2008 inclusive political dialogue and an investigation into the disappearance of former CPJP leader Charles Massi.
The rebels took up arms on December 10th and have, since then, conquered around 10 towns, including Bambari, the third largest city in the country situated at a crossroads between diamond mining sites and routes to the east.
With growing fears that the coalition would attack and capture the capital, President Bozize has appealed to the international community to assist the national army in defeating the Seleka coalition.
France, CAR’s former colonizer, refused to offer any military assistance, as French President Francois Hollande emphasized that his country only wants to protect its interests in CAR and not Bozize’s government. The comment came a day after dozens of protesters, angry at the lack of support against rebel forces, threw rocks at the French Embassy in Bangui and stole a French flag. France initially had around 200 soldiers in the country, providing technical support and helping to train the local army. It recently increased its forces to nearly 600, in order to guarantee the security of the over 1,200 French citizens currently living in the country.
The United States (U.S.) also has Special Forces troops in the CAR taking part in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the rebel leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four nations. The U.S. has evacuated around 40 people, including the U.S. ambassador, from Bangui to Kenya. The decision to evacuate the Embassy came as a response to criticism over the handling of diplomatic security during the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012, when the ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
While the U.S. and France have refused to extend assistance to Bozize, representatives from the 10-nation Economic Community of Central African States have agreed to send additional forces to CAR to its 500 peacekeeping troops already in CAR, without however revealing their specific number and the date of their arrival.
The UN Security Council has condemned the violence and demanded that the Seleka coalition cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities and stop its advance toward the capital city. The UN also announced pulling its non-essential staff out of the country.
Talks between the rebels and the Bozize government are planned to commence next week in Gabon. Bozize has announced his willingness to form a government of national unity with Seleka to run the country together. While the rebels have declared that they would take into account the offer, they emphasized that their goal was not to enter the existing government, but to allow the people of CAR to be able to drive the country towards development and self-fulfillment.
Despite a wealth of resources, including gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the CAR remains an extremely poor country, which has experienced numerous rebellions since obtaining its independence from France in 1960.