BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Angry protesters carrying clubs threw rocks at the French Embassy in Central African Republic on Wednesday, criticizing the former colonial power for failing to do more to stem a rapid rebel advance as fears grew that the insurgents aim to seize the capital.
The demonstrations began earlier in the day outside the U.S. Embassy before about 100 protesters then took to the French Embassy, carrying pieces of cardboard with messages that read: "No to war! No to France!"
"It's France who colonized us — they should support us until the end. Unfortunately, they have done nothing. In this case, we are merely asking purely and simply that they leave our country," shouted one young demonstrator in front of the French mission in Bangui.
The protesters then began stopping cars to verify whether any foreign nationals were inside.
"These people have taken down the French flag from its pole and removed it," said Serge Mucetti, the French ambassador to Central African Republic. "They have carried out stone-throwing in the area of the embassy and have broken windows. This kind of behavior is unacceptable."
Air France confirmed Wednesday that its once-a-week flight to Bangui turned back because of protests at the French Embassy. The decision was made independently by Air France, and the French government did not make the request, said an airline spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because company policy did not authorize her to speak on the record.
The French foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Many fear that Bangui, a city of about 600,000 people, could be the scene of a battle between government forces and the rebels. The fighters already have seized at least 10 towns, meeting little resistance from soldiers.
Rebel Col. Djouma Narkoyo said Wednesday that his forces have continued taking towns in recent days because government forces are attacking their positions. But, he insisted via phone: "Our intention is not to take Bangui. We still remain open to dialogue."
Bangui residents were skeptical of the insurgents' intentions.
"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."
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. The group signed an April 13, 2007, peace accord, which paved the way for the fighters to join the regular army, but the group's leaders say the deal 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.
Associated Press Writer Lori Hinnant contributed to this report from Paris.