BANGUI (Reuters) - Central African Republic President Francois Bozize on Tuesday urged rebels threatening to enter the capital to lay down their arms and let him complete the last three years of his term.
Fighters encamped within 75 km (45 miles) of the capital Bangui accuse Bozize of reneging on a 2007 deal to give money and jobs to former rebels, and their leaders are now split over whether to accept an offer of new talks.
The rebellion poses the biggest threat yet to Bozize’s near 10-year rule over the former French colony - one of the world’s poorest nations despite its rich deposits of uranium, gold and diamonds.
“I repeat that I will not be a candidate in the 2016 election, so let me finish my mandate, I only have three years left,” Bozize said in a New Year’s Day address broadcast on state radio in the country’s Sango language.
Bozize criticized his own army for a string of defeats during the Seleka rebels’ three-week advance on the city, and thanked troops from neighboring Chad for reinforcing.
“The army has not played its role. Without the Chadian army we would no longer be here ... I ask forgiveness from all the people in areas occupied by the rebels,” he said.
The criticism was a potentially risky move in a country whose history has been marked by a series of coups and mutinies.
The European Union called on the government and rebels to reach a deal and condemned reports of attacks on Bangui residents over the past few days.
“I call immediately on authorities to take all necessary measures to end, without delay, all exactions against populations in Bangui neighborhoods that undermine chances of a peaceful dialogue,” said EU High Representative Catherine Ashton in a statement on Tuesday.
She did not give any further details, but a rebel spokesman said there had been reports of security forces and pro-government youth militia targeting opposition supporters. Bozize’s government has not commented on those reports.
Bozize came to power in a 2003 rebellion and has depended on military support from France, Chad and other countries to ward off a succession of rebel assaults.
France has said it will not defend Bozize’s government this time, and has urged Bozize, the rebels and the country’s opposition to talk.
Hopes of a deal appeared to take a hit on Monday when rebel spokesman Eric Massi said the group had “nothing to negotiate”.
But another rebel official said on Monday Seleka leaders were divided over whether to accept peace talks, with some factions ready to lay down their weapons.
Regional leaders have agreed to send 360 extra troops to shore up CAR’s army this week - from Congo, Gabon and Cameroon - adding to a more than 500-strong regional force made up mostly of Chadian troops.
Chad President Idriss Deby, who heads the Economic Community of Central African States, warned rebels on Monday not to advance beyond Damara, a government-held town 75 km north of Bangui and the last buffer before the capital.
The rebels meanwhile have called on CAR’s army and regional forces backing them to switch sides and turn on Bozize.
The rebels’ rapid onslaught highlights instability in a country at the heart of one of Africa’s most turbulent and underdeveloped regions.
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries 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.
About 1,200 French citizens live in CAR, and France has a 600-strong force in the country which it says it is using only to protect its nationals.
Additional reporting by Ange Aboa in Bangui and Richard Valdmanis in Dakar; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens