No quick fix for the Central African Republic

But with seemingly incompatible expectations – and South Africa implying that it could take five years to fully establish peace – observers are not holding their breath for a quick settlement.

Rebel coalition Séléka halted its advance on the CAR capital Bangui less than 100km from the city, apparently in the face of a buffer zone bolstered by foreign troops, and agreed to negotiate. Although President François Bozizé has offered concessions, including not standing for a third term, his government has rejected outright any suggestion that he should step down. That is a demand the rebels have labelled as non-negotiable.

President Jacob Zuma authorised the deployment of 400 defence force members to the CAR, with a mandate to assist in disarmament and demobilisation up to March 2018, and a contingent of 200 South African troops was deployed to Bangui in recent weeks.

Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon have also dispatched troops to the country, taking the foreign contingent to more than 1 000.

Bozizé has accused the Sudanese regime of sponsoring Séléka – which Khartoum denies. The CAR also claims that Sudanese, Nigerian and Chadian mercenaries have joined Séléka.

South Africa, the African Union, the European Union, the United States and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians, and the Economic Community of Central African States has organised the peace talks. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the security council have condemned the attacks and called on the rebels to halt hostilities.

Humanitarian groups have expressed alarm at the lack of access to more than 300 000 civilians who were caught up in fighting. Rebels have seized more than a dozen towns since the beginning of December, including four regional capitals.

The groups fear that another 700 000 people could be affected if Séléka should resume its push, and imperil Bangui.

Bozizé has offered to form a unity government and not run for a third term in the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2016. But he has rejected rebel demands to step down now.

He came to power in a rebellion backed by Chad in 2003 and has relied on foreign military help to face down a series of smaller insurgencies. He won elections in 2005 and 2011 despite complaints of fraud.

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