By Stephanie Hancock
PAOUA, Central African Republic, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Bertin Wafio sits in a village clearing sipping tea from a flask, his teenage bodyguards self-consciously examining their ancient rifles and wearily scanning the horizon.
"We have been in the bush for two years now, fighting to bring peace and security to our country," said Wafio, one of the leaders of Central African Republic’s Popular Army for the Restoration of the Republic and Democracy (APRD).
"Those who are currently governing the country do not respond to the wishes of the population ... We want the most rapid change possible."
The APRD has made little progress in dislodging President Francois Bozize, who seized power in an uprising in March 2003 and was elected two years later.
People in the area say the group was once financed by former President Ange-Felix Patasse, whom Bozize overthrew in 2003, but the money has dried up. Wafio says he has 3,000 men but they lack heavy weapons.
Only three senior APRD commanders have a satellite phone, meaning its units are sometimes forced to use messengers on bicycle or horseback to communicate, one observer said.
With too few guns to go round, many rebels carry clubs or machetes. Even some of their guns are home-made.
Civilians in the area say more and more rebel fighters are deserting or defecting to the government ranks, fed up with going hungry in the bush — something Wafio acknowledges.
"We are working with humans, and in a society you can’t have everybody who accepts the same idea ... In the bush it’s not easy and some people leave for a better life," Wafio said. Since the group began sporadic attacks on government positions in September 2005, large parts of northwest CAR have been ravaged by successive raids by rebels, government troops and fighters from across the northern border in Chad.
A European Union-led force proposed by the U.N. to complement a planned peacekeeping force in Darfur would mean up to 3,000 troops being assigned to Chad and northern CAR.
In the meantime, villagers complain of looting and thousands of mud and straw houses have been torched, mainly by government troops who accuse local people of supporting the rebels.
Humanitarian agencies say around 290,000 people have been forced from their homes, some surviving by foraging in the bush. Others have fled over the border to Chad or Cameroon.
Living off the land, the rebels have fared little better.
A separate uprising launched across the border from Sudan’s Darfur region late last year by the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) captured a swathe of northeastern CAR, but was repulsed with help from French fighter jets and special forces.
Vague talk of a united rebel front with the APRD petered out when the UFDR signed a peace deal with the government in April.
"The rebels here are abandoned. They need money to continue their movement," the observer, with years of experience in CAR, told Reuters in Paoua. "Their aim is to destabilise the country and to make it ungovernable."
Like other rebel groups across the violent heart of Africa stretching from Darfur and Chad down to Democratic Republic of Congo, the APRD uses child soldiers. Wafio is unrepentant.
"Yes, they carry arms, but they are all at least 12 years old," Wafio said, surrounded by his youthful bodyguards.
"They have their reasons to come here, because they have been persecuted and their relatives have asked us to integrate them for their own security. They cannot stay in their own villages."
Wafio says just 3 percent of his fighters are children. Critics say the real figure is more like 40 percent.
Villagers in the area have mixed feelings about Wafio’s men.
"There are quite a few of them, enough to completely encircle our village," said a teacher in Betoko, a half-deserted village 40 km (25 miles) north of Paoua where APRD fighters have set up as self-appointed protectors.
"We don’t know where they are from, and we are not allowed to ask them anything," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified to avoid possible reprisals. "It’s a menace."