Rebels who captured large parts of Central African Republic have halted their advance, leading to fresh hopes of a peace agreement.
The Séléka coalition of rebel fighters, which began seizing regional capitals and mining areas in the diamond-rich country in December, said it would not attack capital city Bangui and is expected to begin negotiations with the government in Libreville, the capital of nearby Gabon next week.
But the fate of President Francois Bozizé continues to hang in the balance as the rebels – who accuse Bozizé of failing to honour the terms of an earlier peace deal – say they might insist on his removal.
"I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today, because we want to enter talks in Libreville for a political solution," Séléka spokesperson Eric Massi told Reuters.
"I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozizé," he said.
Bozizé has pledged not to run for a third term in presidential elections scheduled for 2016. But there are signs that rebel demands for him to step down could scupper negotiations. Bozizé – who used military force to seize power in 2003 but has since won two elections – has said that he will form a government of national unity.
Residents in Bangui, which remains under curfew, expressed relief after days of speculation that the city could fall under rebel control. In recent days civilian supporters of Bozizé have erected roadblocks in an attempt to prevent a incursion, and residents have stockpiled food and water. There have also been marches and violent protests outside the French embassy, after some people accused France of abandoning its former colony.
France has 250 troops in Central African Republic but said it would only deploy them to protect its embassy and other interests. There are around 1 200 French citizens in the country, many working for mining firms, such as French nuclear giant Areva, which has a significant uranium mine in the south-east of the country.
A deployment of troops from nearby Central African nations has been bolstered, as an extra 360 soldiers from Gabon, Congo Brazzaville and Cameroon began arriving in Central African Republic on Tuesday, bringing the total number of central African troops in the country to 760.
Neighbouring Chad – where President Idriss Deby is one of Bozize's closest allies – sent 400 troops. Bozizé used his nationally broadcast new year's address to thank Chad for its support. "Thanks to the Chadian army, you are listening to me on the radio and watching me on television," he said. "Otherwise, we would all be in the bush. Bangui would be empty today and embroiled in unrest. Thanks to the Chadian army, thanks to President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad."
Chad – whose military is one of the more respected in West and Central Africa – has repeatedly shored up Bozizé's regime, assisting his rise to power after a brief war in 2003 and fortifying the government amid previous threats. The Chadian and other Central African troops hope to defend the key strategic town of Damara, the last settlement between the capital, about 72km away, and the rebel-held north.
But humanitarian concerns remain for the country, which despite its mineral wealth has 60% of the population living in poverty. Aid groups have been pulling out of the country, including the United Nations, which has evacuated more than 200 non-essential staff, and children's charity Unicef, which has relocated all international staff to Cameroon.
Instability is nothing new in the Central African Republic. The country has faced political unrest since independence from France in 1960, including numerous attempted coups.
The country has also suffered scores of civilian casualties as a result of internal and international rebel incursions, with insurgencies in Chad, Sudan the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo all affecting the country.
The former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, is on trial at the international criminal court for war crimes and crimes against humanity including rape and pillaging allegedly committed in Central African Republic during 2002/03.
South Africa added its voice to the growing list of nations concerned about the situation in the country on Wednesday.
"We demand that the armed groups immediately cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities and cease any further advances towards the city of Bangui. We call on all parties to refrain from any acts of violence against civilians and to respect human rights," a statement said.
The African Union, United States, European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians, while the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has organised the coming talks aimed at solving the crisis. – © Guardian News and Media 2013