Rebels in Central African Republic said they had halted their advance on the capital on Wednesday and agreed to start peace talks, averting a clash with regionally backed troops.
The Seleka rebels had pushed to within striking distance of Bangui after a three-week onslaught and threatened to oust President François Bozizé, accusing him of reneging on a previous peace deal and cracking down on dissidents.
Their announcement Wednesday 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 phone 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 Bozizé.”
Mr. Bozizé on Wednesday fired his army chief of staff and took over the defence minister’s role from his son, Jean Francis Bozizé, according to a decree read on national radio, a day after publicly criticising the military for failing to repel the rebels.
The advance by Seleka, an alliance of mostly northeastern rebel groups, was the latest in a series of revolts in a country at the heart of one of Africa’s most turbulent regions – and the most serious since the Chad-backed insurgency that swept Mr. Bozizé to power in 2003.
Diplomatic sources have said talks organized by central African regional bloc ECCAS could start Jan. 10. The United States, the European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.
Central African Republic is one of the world’s least developed countries despite deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. French nuclear energy group Areva mines the country’s Bakouma uranium deposit, France’s biggest commercial interest in its former colony.
News of the rebel halt eased tension 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 city.
ECCAS members Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon and Cameroon have sent hundreds of soldiers to reinforce CAR’s army after a string of rebel victories since early December.
Gabonese General Jean Felix Akaga, commander of the regional force, said his troops were defending the town of Damara, 75 kilometres north of Bangui and close to the rebel front.
“Damara is a red line not to be crossed … Damara is in our control and Bangui is secure,” he told Reuters. “If the rebellion decides to approach Damara, they know they will encounter a force that will react.”
Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and truck-mounted machineguns had taken up positions across the town, which was otherwise nearly abandoned.
Some of the fighters wore turbans that covered their faces and had charms strung around their necks and arms meant to protect them against enemy bullets.
Chad President Idriss Deby, one of Mr. Bozizé’s closest allies, had warned the rebels the regional force would confront them if they approached the town.
Chad provided training and equipment to the rebellion that brought Mr. Bozizé to power by ousting then-president Ange-Félix Patassé. who Chad accused of supporting Chadian dissidents.
Chad is also keen to keep a lid on instability in the territory close to its main oil export pipeline and has stepped in to defend Bozize against insurgents in the past.
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local soldiers track down Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.