Francois Bozize, the embattled Central African Republic president, has urged the United States and France to help push back rebel forces are advancing towards the capital Bangui.
“We are asking our cousins the French and the United States, which are major powers, to help us push back the rebels to their initial positions in a way that will permit talks in Libreville to resolve this crisis,” Bozize told a crowd at a main square in Bangui on Thursday.
But the United States has evacuated its embassy in Bangui and temporarily halted its operations amid security fears, as the rebel fighters close in on Bangui, creating alarm among its 600,000 residents.
The State Department said it had not broken off diplomatic ties with the beleaguered government, but warned US citizens not to travel to the mineral-rich but chronically unstable country while unrest continues.
“As a result of the deteriorating security situation, the US embassy in Bangui suspended its operations on December 28, 2012, and therefore cannot provide protection or routine consular services to US citizens in the Central African Republic,” it said in a statement.
This came after the UN announced that it was pulling its non-essential staff out of the country.
Meanwhile, former colonial power France, whose embassy in Bangui came under attack on Wednesday by demonstrators angry at the lack of French help, vowed it would not intervene in the country, which has a chequered history of coups and brutal rule.
Francois Hollande, the French president, said on Thursday that French soldiers stationed in its former colony would not be used to defend Bozize’s government.
A rebel coalition known as Seleka already have seized at least 10 towns across the sparsely populated north of this deeply impoverished country since its fighters took up arms on December 10.
Their troops have stopped short of the capital, but UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said the rebels’ “contradictory messages and their continued military offensive seem to indicate that they might be intent on taking Bangui”.
Nesirky, issued a statement saying UN chief Ban Ki-moon “strongly condemns the armed attacks on several towns in the Central African Republic perpetrated by the coalition of rebel groups ‘Seleka'”.
Angry protesters carrying clubs threw rocks at the French embassy, criticising the former colonial power for failing to do more to stem a rapid rebel advance. Demonstrations were also held outside the US embassy.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, UN Envoy Margaret Vogt said people in the capital are “nervous,” but added that “we have been through this cycle several times before”.
Vogt also added that the UN “does not have the capacity to intervene in any way other than what we are doing”.
Many fear that Bangui could be the scene of a battle between government forces and the rebels.
‘Open to dialogue’
Rebel Colonel Djouma Narkoyo said on Wednesday that his forces have continued taking towns in recent days because government forces are attacking their positions.
But, he insisted via phone: “Our intention is not to take Bangui. We still remain open to dialogue.”
Bangui residents were skeptical of the insurgents’ intentions. “We are afraid by what we see happening in our country right now,” Leon Modomale, a civil servant in the capital, said.
The rebels behind the most recent instability signed a 2007 peace accord, allowing them to join the regular army, but the group’s leaders say the deal wasn’t fully implemented.
Central African Republic has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since it gained independence in 1960.
President Bozize, a former military commander, came to power in a 2003 rebel war that ousted his predecessor, Ange Felix Patasse.
Despite the nation’s wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped.
American special forces troops have been deployed to war-ravaged country and neighbouring states in the region to assist in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.