Rebels push closer to C. African Republic capital

Associated Press
FILE - In this Jan. 5, 2013 file photo, government security forces in a pickup truck drive past a demonstration calling for peace as negotiators prepare for talks with rebels from the north, in downtown Bangui, Central African Republic Saturday. On Friday, March 22, rebels took the town of Damara, beginning a new march to take the capital, Bangui, said a rebel spokesman. Panic spread throughout the capital, with the neighborhoods closest to the northern gate of the city emptying out, as frightened residents locked up their shops, packed their bags and yanked their children out of school. Banks and government offices closed early.(AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)
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BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Rebels in Central African Republic pushed closer to the capital on Saturday, taking control of more towns and cutting some power to the capital, as the military pushed back with aerial strikes, an official said.

An aerial attack against rebel positions along two main roads from Damara halted the groups known as Seleka, and killed one civilian and wounded six soldiers, said Jean-Pierre Sadou, a spokesman for the Central African Republic military. He said that soldiers remain on high alert in the capital, Bangui.

The rebels took control of the town of Bossembele early Saturday, said military spokesman Lt. Evrard Tekremoyen, after they had seized Damara on Friday, crossing the boundary line drawn by regional forces in January, when the same rebel group threatened to take the capital if their demands were not met.

After fighting in Bossembele, rebels drove to the neighboring town of Boali and took control of three power plants that serve the town and the capital, residents said. The rebels then cut off the electrical grid, plunging some of Bangui into darkness, Elisabeth Kofio, the director of Central African Republic Energy, said on the radio.

Later Saturday non-essential United Nations personnel were taking a bus to the airport. On the way they were stopped by a group of youths, who demanded they stay, said a U.N. employee Debonheur Deotar.

"No one leaves this country. You will stay here. If we die, we all die together," the youths shouted, Deotar said.

Central African Republic, a nation of 4.5 million located at the heart of the African continent, remains one of the world's poorest nations. It has weathered repeated coups and rebel invasions, which have become part of the nation's political DNA.

Rebels on Thursday had dismissed President Francois Bozize's offer to release some political prisoners, saying the fighters would still consider retaking up arms despite signing a peace agreement two months ago. The rebels had months ago threatened to advance on the capital, Bangui, if Bozize did not step aside. The crisis prompted Chad, Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Gabon to send soldiers to Central African Republic.

The rebels stopped just before Damara, before entering into talks with the government, culminating in a Jan. 11 peace deal signed in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. Rebels from the alliance Seleka later joined the government of President Bozize as part of a deal that allowed him to finish his term in 2016.

Cracks have since emerged in the agreement, and the rebels had set a Wednesday deadline for Bozize to meet their demands. They are seeking the integration of some 2,000 rebel forces into the national army and the departure of South African forces on assignment in the country.

President Bozize has just returned from a meeting in South Africa with its president.

Central African Republic has had numerous attempted power grabs over the years, but the Seleka rebels' advance last December through towns in the north marked the most significant threat to Bozize's government since the president took control following a 2003 rebellion.

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