Rebels in Central African Republic (CAR) have continued their advance, seizing the city of Sibut, 185km from Bangui, the capital, a government official has confirmed.
Sibut, a key transportation hub, fell on Saturday without a shot being fired because the government army and forces from neighbouring Chad had pulled back to Damara, 75km from Bangui on Friday, said Minister of Territorial Administration Josie Binoua.
The telephone lines to Sibut have been cut, making it difficult to check the situation with local residents.
A rebel coalition known as Seleka already have seized about 10 towns across the sparsely populated north of this deeply impoverished country since its fighters took up arms on December 10.
Talks between the rebels and the government led by President Francois Bozize are planned to start next week in Gabon.
Representatives from the 10-nation Economic Community of Central African States agreed at a meeting in Gabon on Friday to send forces to CAR, but did not did not specify how many troops would be sent or how quickly the military
assistance would arrive.
As fears mounted that the rebels would attack the capital of 600,000, Bozize pleaded for international help. But former colonial power France said its forces in the country are there to protect French interests and not Bozize's government.
The United Nations Security Council has condemned the violence and reiterated its demand that the armed groups "immediately cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities and cease any further advance towards the city of
The UN also announced that it was pulling its non-essential staff out of the country.
The ongoing instability has prompted the US to evacuate about 40 people, including the US ambassador, from Bangui on an US Air Force plane bound for Kenya, said US officials who insisted on anonymity because they weren't authorised to discuss the operation.
The US has special forces troops in the country who are assisting in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of a rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army based in northen Uganda.
The evacuation of the US diplomats came after criticism of its handling of diplomatic security before and during the attack on its consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11. The ambassador and three other Americans were killed in that attack.
'Thirst for justice'
The landlocked nation of 4.4 million people has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since gaining independence in 1960 and remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
Bozize's government earlier reached out to longtime ally Chad, which pledged to send 2,000 troops to bolster its own forces.
The rebels behind the most recent instability signed a 2007 peace accord allowing them to join the regular army, but insurgent leaders say the deal wasn't fully implemented.
The rebels say they are fighting because of their "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic".
They also are demanding that the government make payments to ex-combatants. Despite Central African Republic's wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped.