LIBREVILLE Central African Republic's neighbors 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 African nations.
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)