BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that France wants to protect its interests in Central African Republic and not a regime, casting doubt that the former colonial power will come to the aid of the government facing a rapid rebel offensive.
The rebels already have seized at least 10 towns across the sparsely populated north of this deeply impoverished country, and residents in the capital of 600,000 people now fear the insurgents could attack at any time.
On Wednesday, protesters threw rocks at the French Embassy in Bangui, the capital, criticizing France for failing to do more.
About 200 French soldiers are already in the country, providing technical and logistical support and helping to train the local army, according to the French defense ministry.
France, though, is focusing its efforts for the time being on encouraging peace talks.
"France is calling on all parties in the Central African Republic to negotiate in good faith at the talks that will begin shortly in Libreville (Gabon)," the French foreign ministry said Thursday.
Central African Republic has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since it gained independence in 1960. 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.
The rebel Union for the Democratic Forces for Unity, known by its French acronym of UFDR, claims its attacks are justified in light of the "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic."
Among their demands is that the government make payments to ex-combatants, suggesting that their motives may also be for personal financial gain.
Rebel Col. Djouma Narkoyo insisted Wednesday that "our intention is not to take Bangui. We still remain open to dialogue."
Bangui residents, though, are skeptical.
"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."
President Francois 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.
U.S. special forces troops have deployed to Central African Republic among other countries in the region to assist in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army.
Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.