BANGUI, Central African Republic — Rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) 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 to 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 rebel advance was the latest in a series of revolts and coups in a country at the heart of one of Africa's most turbulent regions.
CAR remains severely underdeveloped despite its rich deposits of gold, diamonds, and other minerals. French nuclear energy group Areva mines the Bakouma uranium deposit in CAR's south — France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.
Diplomatic sources have said talks organised by central African regional bloc ECCAS could start on Jan. 10.
RELIEF IN BANGUI
The United States, the European Union, and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.
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 troops to reinforce CAR's army after a string of rebel victories since early December.
Chad President Idriss Deby, one of Bozize's closest allies, had warned the rebels the regional force would confront them if they passed the town of Damara, about 75 km (45 miles) from the capital.
Bozize came to power in a 2003 rebellion whose fighting force was equipped and trained in Chad.
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the area 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 where they mostly work for aid groups or mining firms, and France has a 600-strong force in the country which it says it is using only to protect its nationals.
Paris used airstrikes 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.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.