BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Delegations representing Central African Republic's government and the rebels who now control much of the country's north headed Monday to Gabon for peace talks, though already there are concerns about what will happen if those negotiations fail.
The rebel alliance claims it could still take the government-fortified city of Damara or the capital of Bangui but were holding back out of concern for the 700,000 people who live there.
"If we wanted to take Damara, it would already be done. We have the means to take Damara and also to take Bangui today but we don't want the capital to suffer attacks," rebel spokesman Eric Massi told The Associated Press in Paris.
This week's meetings between rebels, the government and the country's political opposition in Libreville, Gabon, come a month after fighters from several armed groups began their rebellion against a government that has wielded little power over its vast and sparsely populated north.
While the rebels — who call themselves Seleka, which means alliance in the local Sango language — have halted their advance toward the capital of Bangui, they now hold a dozen cities and towns. The rebellion poses the greatest threat to President Francois Bozize's presidency since he seized power in 2003.
Bozize already has offered up the possibility of a coalition government, a proposal the rebels have dismissed. A rebel spokesman has said the fighters want Bozize gone, a stipulation that could derail talks altogether.
Some residents of this nation of 4.4 million have little faith the government will be able to reach a lasting agreement with the rebels, especially because multiple peace accords already have been signed over the years with several different groups.
"Even if the rebel leaders reach an agreement with the Bangui government, their people on the ground will not get their piece of cake," said Henry Yenzapa, 42, a history professor at the University of Bangui.
While the rebels had vowed to halt their advance pending the negotiations, residents said two towns were seized over the weekend. Massi, the Paris-based spokesman, accused Bozize of planning to use those towns as jumping off points to spy on Seleka forces.
"We were simply securing our position in taking these two towns and preventing these acts of espionage," said Massi, who identifies himself as Seleka's spokesman, though others within Central African Republic also say they speak for the alliance.
Residents in the capital have been reassured by the presence of regional troops from Gabon, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, and Chad to help stabilize the country. South Africa also has said it is sending 400 soldiers to help support national forces here.
"The military aid provided by the (10-nation) Economic Community of Central African States reassures us that the rebels are not going to continue their advance in the direction of Bangui," said Patrick Bangui, a 27-year-old student.
Meetings are to begin Tuesday, with high-level discussions due to take place later in the week.
The shaky rebel alliance, Seleka, is made up of four rebel groups all known by their French acronyms — UFDR, CPJP, FDPC and CPSK.
Cyriaque Gonda, who has negotiated on behalf of the government with the rebels and will be in Gabon this week, says some of them couldn't even accept sitting together as recently as 2008. In September 2011, fighting between the CPJP and the UFDR left at least 50 people dead in the town of Bria and more than 700 homes destroyed.
Gonda noted that the Bozize government already has signed several agreements with each rebel movement.
"I am convinced that this meeting is the last chance," he said. "This is the last time."
The rebels want to renegotiate those previous accords from 2007, and say that key provisions were never fully implemented. Gonda said there have been financial constraints that have prevented the desperately poor country from completing the demobilization process.
The rebels "are going to have zero confidence in many promises that Bozize makes," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Still, she had a scrap of optimism.
"There's a possibility of an agreement — the question is building confidence on both sides, particularly the rebel side, and maintaining it going forward," Cooke said.
Associated Press writers Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris; Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic; and Yves Laurent Goma in Libreville, Gabon contributed to this report.