BANGUI Rebels in Central African Republic said they had halted their advance on the capital on Wednesday and agreed to start peace talks, averting a clash with regionally backed troops in the mineral-rich nation.
The Seleka rebels had pushed within striking distance of Bangui after a three-week onslaught and threatened to oust President Francois Bozize, accusing him of reneging on a previous peace deal and cracking down on dissidents.
Their announcement on Wednesday only gave the leader a limited reprieve as the fighters told Reuters they might insist on his removal in the negotiations.
"I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today because we want to enter talks in (Gabon's capital) Libreville for a political solution," said Seleka spokesman Eric Massi, speaking by telephone from Paris.
"I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozize," he added.
The advance by Seleka, an alliance of mostly northeastern rebel groups, was the latest in a series of revolts in a country at the heart of one of Africa's most turbulent regions.
CAR remains severely underdeveloped despite its deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. French nuclear energy group Areva mines CAR's Bakouma uranium deposit - France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.
Diplomatic sources have said talks organized by central African regional bloc ECCAS could start on January 10. The United States, the European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.
RELIEF IN BANGUI
News of the rebel halt eased tensions in Bangui, where residents had been stockpiling food and water and staying indoors after dark.
"They say they are no longer going to attack Bangui, and that's great news for us," said Jaqueline Loza in the crumbling riverside city. "It is best for everyone if all sides go to the negotiating table."
ECCAS members Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon and Cameroon have sent hundreds of soldiers to reinforce CAR's army after a string of rebel victories since early December.
Gabonese General Jean Felix Akaga, commander of the regional force, said his troops were defending the town of Damara, 75 km (45 miles) north of Bangui, close to where the rebels were camped.
"Damara is a red line not to be crossed ... Damara is in our control and Bangui is secure," he told Reuters.
Chad President Idriss Deby, one of Bozize's closest allies, had warned the rebels the regional force would confront them if they approached the town.
Bozize came to power in a 2003 rebellion backed by Chad, which wanted to replace the CAR president's predecessor who it accused of supporting Chadian dissidents.
Chad, also keen to keep a lid on instability in the territory close to its main oil export pipeline, has stepped in to defend Bozize against insurgents in the past.
A CAR government minister told Reuters the foreign troop presence strengthened Bozize's bargaining position ahead of the Libreville peace talks.
"The rebels are now in a position of weakness," the minister said, asking not to be named. "They should therefore stop imposing conditions like the departure of the president."
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local soldiers track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.
France has a 600-strong force in CAR to defend about 1,200 of its citizens who live there.
Paris used air strikes to defend Bozize against a rebellion in 2006. But French President Francois Hollande turned down a request for more help, saying the days of intervening in other countries' affairs were over.
(Additional reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana in Bangui and Jon Herskovitz in Johannesburg; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)