* Regional bloc agrees to increase troops in CAR
* ECCAS has more than 500 troops in CAR, size of increase
* Rebels say won't attack Bangui pending peace talks
By Phal Mezui Ndong
LIBREVILLE, Dec 29 Central African Republic's
neighbours have agreed to increase the number of troops
stationed there to help defend against rebels threatening to
overthrow the government.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) -
which already has more than 500 peacekeepers in CAR - announced
its decision overnight in Gabon's capital Libreville, ahead of
peace talks planned between the SELEKA rebels and the government
in early January.
The insurgency poses the biggest threat yet to President
Francois Bozize's nearly ten years in charge of the nation,
which has remained poor since independence from France in 1960
despite rich deposits of uranium, gold and diamonds.
"We are thinking of a way to deploy this mission as quickly
as possible," Gabon Foreign Minister Emmanuel Issoze Ngondet
told reporters after a meeting with his regional counterparts.
He did not say how many soldiers would be deployed.
The ECCAS troops, mostly from Chad, are part of the MICOPAX
(Mission for the consolidation of peace in Central African
Republic) peacekeeping force, but have been unable to prevent a
rebel advance to within 75 km (45 miles) of the capital Bangui
since early December.
The SELEKA rebels have threatened to overthrow Bozize if he
does not live up to a previous peace deal offering former
fighters pay and jobs, but they have agreed to stay out of
Bangui to allow for peace talks.
Officials in Bangui on Friday said rebels had agreed to send
delegates to Libreville in early January. A rebel spokesman was
not immediately available to comment.
Some clashes between government troops and rebel fighters
were reported on the outskirts of Damara, 75 km north of Bangui,
on Friday, and some residents of the capital were fleeing the
city, fearing a fresh rebel push.
Clashes were also heard in Bambari, some 385 km northwest of
Bangui, residents told Reuters.
Bozize came to power in a rebellion in 2003 and has since
won two elections. France conducted air strikes against rebels
challenging him in 2006, but Paris has said it will not
intervene militarily in the current conflict.
The United States said on Thursday it had closed its embassy
in Bangui and evacuated its staff.
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in
the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local forces
try to track down the Lords Resistance Army, a rebel group
responsible for killing thousands of civilians across four
Some 1,200 French nationals live in CAR, mostly in the
capital, according to the French Foreign Ministry, where they
typically work for mining firms or aid groups.
French nuclear energy group Areva mines the
Bakouma uranium deposit in CAR's south - France's biggest
commercial interest in its former colony.
(Additional reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana in Bangui; Writing
by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)