DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Two days after sweeping into the capital of the Central African Republic and overthrowing the nation's president, one of the leaders of the rebel coalition has already declared himself president, saying he considers himself to be the new head of state.
However, another rebel leader told reporters his group does not recognize Michel Djotodia as president, and says they will challenge his attempt to install himself at the helm.
Djotodia was asked by a French radio station if they should address him as Mr. President? He answered in an interview broadcast by RFI radio on Monday: "I can consider myself to be, at this moment, the head of state."
Asked how long he would stay in power, Djotodia suggested that he would stay as long as three years, the time remaining in the unfinished term of President Francois Bozize, who fled the capital over the weekend and whose whereabouts are now unknown.
"We've just barely started, and you are asking me how long I plan to stay in power? (laughs) I can't say because you know full well that we need time to bring back peace. There is insecurity ... It was said in Libreville that we should respect the three year timeline for organizing free and transparent elections. We won't stay any longer," he told RFI.
In Paris, Nelson N'Jadder, the president of the Revolution for Democracy, one of the rebel groups belonging to the Seleka rebel coalition which invaded the capital, said that his fighters do not recognize Djotodia. He claimed the members of the rebel coalition had agreed that their aim was to push to the presidential palace and then announce an 18-month-long transition before new elections are held. There was never a consensus around appointing Djotodia as their overall leader, he said.
"We do not recognize him as president," N'Jadder told The Associated Press by telephone from Paris. "We had agreed that we would push to Bangui in order to arrest Bozize and that we would then announce an 18-month transition, a transition that would be as fast as possible — and not one that would last three years," he said. "For your information, I have enough soldiers loyal to me to attack Djotodia. I am planning to take the Wednesday flight to Bangui."
N'Jadder said that rebels had been pillaging people's homes in Bangui, including the homes of French expatriates. He said that on Monday, he had received a phone call from France's ambassador to Bangui and had presented his apology, explaining that those doing the pillaging were mostly Djotodia's men. "We came to liberate the people, not to steal from them. This is shameful. Unacceptable," he said.
The Seleka rebel coalition is made up of several rebel groups, which last December began their rapid sweep into the Central African Republic, a nation of 4.5 million located at the heart of the continent. The rebels pushed all the way to a town just outside Damara, 75 kilometers (47 miles) from the capital, before entering into talks with the government. In January, they signed a peace deal in Libreville, the capital of the neighboring nation of Gabon, agreeing to allow Bozize to carry out the last three years of his term, in return for a number of concessions.
Last week, they declared the peace deal void, saying Bozize had failed to free their prisoners and had refused to send back the South African troops that were guarding him, two of the points of the accord. In just three days, they swept past Damara, marking the "red line" set up by a regional force to divide rebel-held territory from the area under government control, and advanced all the way to a checkpoint, PK12, just outside the capital. Bozize fled with a coterie of loyalists, leaving by car across the border into neighboring Congo, said N'Jadder and others. It was unclear if he remained in Congo or if he had traveled onward to another nation.
The speed of the rebel advance, and the fact that they succeeded in pushing past the South African troops stationed in Bangui suggests they were well-armed, and likely benefiting from the support of neighboring nations. There has been speculation that either Chad, or Sudan or Gabon provided the rebels with arms and logistical support. Djotodia rejected the claim.
"If we picked up arms, it's not because we were pushed by this or that person," he told RFI. "It's poverty simply put that pushed us to pick up arms — that's all."
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi