BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — A leader for the rebels seizing towns across Central African Republic said Wednesday that his fighters do not intend to advance on the capital and remain open to dialogue with the government.
The announcement comes as fear grows in Bangui, a city of about 600,000 people, that government forces could face off against rebels here.
While the rebels have taken hold of at least 10 towns, the closest one is still 385 kilometers (240 miles) away.
Rebel Col. Djouma Narkoyo said Wednesday that his forces have continued taking towns in recent days because government forces are attacking their positions.
"Our intention is not to take Bangui," he said, when reached by phone. "We still remain open to dialogue."
There is unease, though, in the capital of Bangui. Residents here say they're skeptical about the claim the rebels don't intend to try and seize this city.
"We are afraid by what we see happening in our country right now," said Leon Modomale, a civil servant in the capital. "It's as if the rebels are going to arrive in Bangui any moment now because there are too many contradictions in their language."
Protesters gathered outside the French and U.S. embassies in Bangui on Wednesday, calling on the countries to help halt the rebel advance.
The rebel advance began earlier this month, with a push by the Union for the Democratic Forces for Unity, known by its French acronym of UFDR in this former French colony.
The group signed an April 13, 2007 peace accord, which paved the way for the fighters to join the regular army, an accord that the group's leaders say was never properly implemented.
Central African Republic is a desperately poor, landlocked country that has suffered numerous rebellions since independence from France.
Despite the nation's wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped.
U.S. special forces troops have deployed to Central African Republic among other countries in the region in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army.