BANGUI (Reuters) - The leader of rebels in Central African Republic pledged to name a power-sharing government in a bid to defuse international criticism of a coup that killed 13 South African soldiers and has plunged the mineral-rich nation into chaos.
Regional peacekeepers said that leader of the Seleka rebel coalition, self-proclaimed president Michel Djotodia, appealed for their help in restoring order after his own men joined in a second day of looting on Monday in the riverside capital Bangui.
The rebels’ ousting of President Francois Bozize on Sunday was condemned by the United Nations and African Union. But in a sign of pragmatism, the United States, France and regional powerbroker Chad called on the insurgents to respect a January peace deal creating a unity government.
Some 5,000 Seleka fighters swept into the capital on Sunday after a lightning offensive in which they fought their way from the far north to the presidential palace in four days after the collapse of the power-sharing deal, the Libreville Accord.
Neighboring Cameroon confirmed on Monday that Bozize had arrived there but said it was not giving him permanent refuge.
The removal of Bozize, who had himself seized power in a coup backed by Chad in 2003, was just the latest of many rebellions since the poor, landlocked country won independence from France in 1960.
“We will lead the people of Central African Republic during a three-year transition period, in accordance with the Libreville Accord,” Djotodia said in a recorded statement issued to reporters. It was not broadcast due to power cuts.
January’s peace deal signed at Libreville, the capital of Gabon, was drafted by regional mediators after the rebels has besieged Bangui in December. The accord had created a government drawn from Bozize loyalists, rebels and the civilian opposition.
Djotodia said that civilian opposition representative Nicolas Tiangaye would remain in place as prime minister.
In Bangui, 600,000 residents of the capital remained without power and running water for a third day. Despite a curfew, there was widespread pillaging of offices, public buildings and businesses by rebels and civilians.
“Public order is the biggest problem right now,” said General Jean Felix Akaga, commander of the regional African peacekeeping force. “Seleka’s leaders are struggling to control their men. The president has asked us to help restore calm.”
He said rebels would be confined to barracks from Monday.
International aid group Doctors Without Borders said its offices in Bangui and elsewhere in the country had been looted, and urged all sides to ensure people had access to health care.
“SAD MOMENT” FOR SOUTH AFRICA
With France’s military contingent refusing to intervene, two heavily armed columns of insurgents in pick-up trucks stormed into Bangui the previous day, brushing aside a South African force of 400 troops which attempted to block their path.
South African President Jacob Zuma said at least 13 soldiers were killed and 27 others wounded in the fighting, the worst military setback for Pretoria since the end of apartheid in 1994 and an embarrassing snub to its efforts to project its power in the resource-rich heart of Africa.
“It is a sad moment for our country,” Zuma said, adding that another soldier was still missing.
“The actions of these bandits will not deter us from our responsibility of working for peace and stability in Africa.”
Zuma said South Africa had yet to decided whether to pull out its force, which he said had inflicted heavy casualties on the rebels during a nine-hour attack on the South African base.
“This is complete disaster for South Africa,” said Thierry Vircoulon, Central African specialist at the International Crisis Group. “They did not at all understand they were backing the wrong horse. They did not consult within the region.”
French troops patrolling the international airport in the capital killed two Indian citizens when three vehicles tried to enter the facility, France’s defense ministry said.
Seleka, a loose coalition of five rebel groups whose name means “alliance” in the Songo language, was formed last year after Bozize had failed to implement power-sharing in the wake of disputed 2011 elections boycotted by the opposition.
It resumed hostilities on Thursday after military leaders of the group detained its five members of Bozize’s government and accused the president of violating January’s peace deal by failing to integrate 2,000 of its fighters into the army.
“The movements that make up Seleka have a long history of divisions,” Vircoulon said. “The cohesion of Seleka will be tested now they are in full control.”
Despite rich deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium, Central African Republic remains one of the world’s least developed and most unstable nations.
Bozize rose in the military during the 1966-1979 rule of dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a self-styled emperor found guilty of the murder of schoolchildren and other crimes.
In recent years, Bozize’s government had hosted U.S. Special Forces helping regional armies hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, led by a Ugandan warlord, who have killed thousands of civilians during decades of conflict.
Paris, which already had 250 soldiers in Central African Republic, has sent another 300 troops to ensure the security of its citizens and diplomatic missions.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said there was no need to evacuate the 1,200 French nationals, most of whom are in the capital. “Things are under control from our point of view regarding French nationals,” Fabius told Europe 1 radio.
French President Francois Hollande spoke to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Chadian President Idriss Deby to suggest that any solution to the crisis should be based on the Libreville agreement, Fabius added.
“For now, there is no legitimate authority there,” he said, adding that France did not see it as its place to intervene.
France offered its condolences to India for the killing of Indian civilians and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was due to speak with his Indian counterpart in the coming hours, the defense ministry said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department also called on Seleka to ensure the implementation of the Libreville agreement and provide full support to Tiangaye’s government. Regional military power Chad said the same in a statement on Sunday.
Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas in Paris and Richard Valdmanis in Dakar; Writing by Daniel Flynn and David Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff, Anna Willard and Alastair Macdonald