The attack follows the government’s accusations that former president Francois Bozize was seeking to mount a coup.
Rebel fighters have partially captured the southern city of Bangassou in the Central African Republic (CAR), weeks after they were accused of an attempted coup and ahead of partial results from a tense presidential election.
A coalition of armed rebel groups, which controls two-thirds of the coup-prone country, launched an offensive on December 19, aiming to disrupt last weekend’s elections and “march on [capital] Bangui”.
They have been kept away from the capital city so far by federal soldiers, United Nations peacekeepers and reinforcements sent from Russia and Rwanda.
But the rebels attacked Bangassou, a diamond-mining town which sits on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) about 750km (470 miles) from Bangui, at dawn on Saturday.
“The rebels control the town,” Rosevel Pierre Louis, head of the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA’s regional office in the city, told AFP news agency on Sunday. “They are everywhere.”
Government troops “abandoned their position and are at our base,” he added.
At least five rebels were killed and two army soldiers were wounded in the clashes, MINUSCA said in a statement, adding that the fighters were allied to former President Francois Bozize.
Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), said it had transported 15 wounded in the fighting.
The government of President Faustin Archange Touadera – the favourite to win the December 27 election – has accused Bozize of fomenting an attempted coup, a charge he has denied.
The rebels launched the offensive last month after the constitutional court rejected Bozize’s candidacy to challenge Touadera in the election.
The rebels also waged a dawn assault on Saturday on the town of Damara, which is Touadera’s stronghold about 70km (45 miles) north of Bangui, but were repelled by troops, MINUSCA said.
Roland Marchal, a CAR specialist at France’s Sciences Po university, said “the rebels thought they could reach Bangui, but they did not expect the arrival of the Russians and Rwandans”.
Analyst Nathalia Dukhan said the rebels have adopted “a long-term strategy by securing the resources to suffocate Bangui”.
The landlocked country is one of the poorest in the world and among the most volatile, suffering coups and wars since independence from France in 1960.
In 2013, it spiralled once more into bloodshed when the then-president Bozize, who had himself seized power in a coup a decade earlier, was removed by a mainly Muslim coalition called the Seleka.
Bangassou resident Ismail said the attack had been expected locally for around two weeks, and many had fled over the border to DRC.
“My children left, I stayed with my wife,” Ismail told AFP, as gunshots could be heard over the phone.
The UN force was not yet able to provide details on the number of dead and wounded in either the Bangassou or Damara attacks.
Bangassou has previously been the target of brutal assaults.
In 2017, “anti-balaka” rebels, drawn mainly from Christian communities, attacked the city, slaughtering dozens of Muslim civilians as well as 12 UN peacekeepers.
The capture of Bangassou comes on the eve of partial results being published for the presidential election.
Lack of security meant that voting did not take place in 29 of the country’s 71 sub-prefectures, while thousands were prevented from casting ballots or never received their voting cards.
Threats and attacks by the rebels kept more than 14 percent of polling stations closed on election day.
Touadera’s party claimed victory last week, while a coalition of opposition groups called for the election to be annulled, claiming ballot stuffing and electoral rigging.
MINUSCA spokesman Vladimir Monteiro accused the opposition of making “false and baseless” allegations.
“Bizarrely, they don’t say anything about former president Francois Bozize, an ally of the armed groups who are responsible for the current violence,” he tweeted.
On Sunday, the UN mission said in a statement that the main armed groups “the UPC, the MPC, the 3R, the FPRC, the anti-balakas and former president Francois Bozize are responsible for these attacks and the grave consequences for the civilian population”.
The definitive results from the first round are not expected before January 18. If there is no outright winner, a runoff will be held on February 14.