BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Rebels in Central African Republic are advancing on the capital, Bangui, after taking the town of Damara on Friday, a rebel spokesman said.
By seizing Damara the rebels crossed 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.
The rebels, known as Seleka, attacked the town of Bossangoa early Friday, before taking Damara later in the day, said Eric Massi, a Paris-based spokesman for the rebels.
He claimed that his fighters had already covertly infiltrated the capital, Bangui, and are waiting for their fellow fighters to join them.
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.
National radio announced Friday afternoon that President Francois Bozize had returned from a meeting in South Africa.
The country's prime minister, meanwhile, had sought refuge at a military base for regional forces known as FOMAC, according to soldier Jean-Pierre Sadou.
"Bossangoa fell without a fight. And as you know, Bossangoa is the fief of President Francois Bozize. We took Bossangoa in the morning and by early afternoon, our elements were in Damara," Massi said by telephone.
"They are now marching on the capital," said Massi. "We are calling on the population and on the military to put down their arms. And we are calling on our soldiers to prove that they are disciplined, to refrain from pillaging, so that we can avoid unnecessary combat."
The United Nations Security Council scheduled emergency closed consultations on Friday to discuss the latest developments in Central African Republic.
International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda also expressed alarm about the situation.
"I am deeply concerned about reports of the worsening situation in the Central African Republic and allegations of the commission of serious crimes in the context of the on-going conflict," Bensouda said. "I remind all parties to the conflict in CAR that ICC has jurisdiction in CAR and my office will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute all those alleged to be committing these crimes."
In January, an international force made up of soldiers from the countries neighboring Central African Republic rushed to the front, creating a new line of control in Damara. 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.
In Bossangoa, resident Marien Nambea confirmed the town had fallen to the rebels, and in Damara, Sadou from the regional force known as FOMAC said the rebels had pushed through their defenses. It was not immediately clear if the FOMAC soldiers had strategically retreated in order to better protect the capital, or if they had fled.
"Since the signing of the deal in Libreville, President Francois Bozize has spent his time trying to put the brakes on the application of the accord. The humanitarian situation has become significantly worse. It's starting to frustrate the people of the Central African Republic and it's why the soldiers of Seleka took this decision," Massi 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, with most people dying before their 49th birthday, according to data from the World Bank. It has weathered repeated coups and rebel invasions, which have become part of the nation's political DNA.
In power since 2003, Bozize is himself the result of a rebel occupation. After years as a high-ranking military officer, Bozize launched a rebellion in 2001, taking Bangui two years later, when the then-president was out of the country.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. AP Writer Edith Lederer contributed from the United Nations.
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi