France will send more troops to the Central African Republic to protect its citizens there after armed rebels seized the capital Bangui.
A government statement gave no details of troop numbers, but said French President François Hollande had spoken with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Chadian President Idriss Deby and repeated his plea for restraint and dialogue between all parties.
Rebels in Central African Republic seized control of the riverside capital after fierce fighting yesterday, forcing President François Bozize to flee and raising fears of instability in the mineral-rich heart of Africa.
At least nine South African soldiers were killed trying to prevent the rebels from taking Bangui, a witness said, dealing a blow to Pretoria’s attempt to stabilise the chaotic nation and assert its influence in the region.
The Seleka rebel coalition resumed hostilities this week in the former French colony and quickly swept south towards Bangui with the aim of toppling Mr Bozize, whom it accused of breaking a January peace deal to integrate its fighters into the army.
“We have taken the presidential palace,” Eric Massi, a Seleka spokesman, told Reuters by telephone from Paris.
Senior government officials confirmed the rebels had captured the city of more than 600,000 people, which lies on the banks of the Oubangi river bordering Democratic Republic of Congo. Residents reported widespread looting of homes and businesses.
“The looting is bad. Both the population and Seleka are involved,” said one senior UN official in Bangui. “We are not sure who is in charge. I don’t think it is clear yet. It is too early in the game.”
The violence is the latest in a series of rebel incursions, clashes and coups that have plagued the landlocked nation – which has rich deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium – since its independence from France in 1960.
The whereabouts of Mr Bozize – who seized power in a 2003 coup backed by neighbouring Chad – was uncertain. A presidential adviser said he had crossed the river into Congo yesterday morning as rebel forces headed for the presidential palace.
The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed Mr Bozize had fled Bangui, but gave no details of his whereabouts. He appealed to France’s 1,200 citizens in the country to remain calm and stay in their homes.
CAR has extensive and unprotected borders and the rebel takeover may add to instability in the turbulent region. It was one of several countries where US Special Forces were helping local soldiers hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that has rampaged across Central Africa and killed thousands.
France, which already had 250 soldiers in Central African Republic, has sent in another company of 150 troops to secure Bangui’s airport.