BANGUI, Central African Republic — Central African Republic rebels clashed with government forces a few miles from the capital on Saturday, residents and rebels said, as two columns of heavily armed insurgents bore down on Bangui.
The Seleka rebel coalition resumed hostilities this week in the mineral-rich former French colony, vowing to topple President Francois Bozize whom it accuses of breaking a January peace agreement to integrate its fighters into the army.
A Reuters reporter in the northern suburbs of the riverside capital heard heavy weapons fire and saw wounded army soldiers being ferried back in pickup trucks for treatment.
He said he saw seven trucks of South African soldiers heading toward the front lines. Pretoria has sent some 400 soldiers to train Bozize's army, joining hundreds of peacekeepers from the Central African regional bloc.
A resident of a village some 12 miles from Bangui's suburbs on the main road heading northwest said a large rebel column had driven past, heading for the capital.
"A lot of rebels passed through the village. The population came to the roadside to cheer them," said Nicholas Enza. Fighting was now taking place some 5 km to the south, he said.
"I can hear explosions," Enza said.
The Seleka forces were sweeping southward after earlier attacking the barracks town of Bossembele, 100 miles northwest of the capital, residents of the town said.
Meanwhile, a second column of rebel fighters was battling government forces for a second day on the road between Bangui and Damara, 40 miles to the northeast.
"It is a question of hours before we reach Bangui," rebel spokesman Eric Massi said by telephone from Paris. "We appeal to the population to remain calm and to stay indoors."
The streets of Bangui emptied on Saturday after news of the renewed rebel assault. The deployment of an army attack helicopter had appeared to push the rebels back toward Damara on Friday, briefly restoring calm to the capital.
Seleka, a loose umbrella group of insurgents, fought its way to the gates of the capital late last year after accusing Bozize of failing to honor an earlier peace deal to give its fighters cash and jobs in exchange for laying down their arms.
The violence is the latest in a series of rebel incursions, clashes and coups that have plagued the landlocked nation in the heart of Africa since its independence from France in 1960.
FIGHTING TO NORTHEAST
State radio announced late Friday that South Africa would boost its 400-strong troop presence after Bozize met his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma in Pretoria. South Africa's Defence Ministry was not available for comment.
Bozize, who took power in a 2003 military coup, returned to Bangui on Friday where officials said he was directing military operations from the presidential palace.
The violence is the latest in a series of rebel incursions, clashes and coups that have plagued the landlocked nation in the heart of Africa since its independence in 1960.
CAR remains among the least developed countries in the world despite rich deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium.
Government spokesman Crepin Mboli-Goumba said the army had pushed the rebel column to the northeast back beyond the town of Damara, some 50 miles from Bangui on the main R2 road.
"We are open to negotiations. The door is still open provided the rebels' demands are reasonable," said Mboli-Goumba.
Rebel spokesman Massi, however, said Seleka fighters had advanced from Damara and were now less than 15 miles from Bangui.
"It is true that we lost ground after the helicopter attack yesterday but we got under way again this morning and we are at the gates of Bangui," he said.
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