Central African Republic: Rebels Call for Dialogue After Capturing Key Town

Bangui — An alliance of three rebel groups that captured the Central African Republic town of Birao on Monday says it is ready to hold talks with the government to resolve the country's problems and avoid "useless bloodshed".

"We want to go to the negotiating table with the ruling regime," Michel Detodia, leader of the coalition calling itself the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR), said on Thursday from Birao, in the north of the country.

Reacting to this, Cyriaque Gonda, the spokesman for President Francois Bozize, said: "The government has not received any official request or demand from any rebel group over an eventual discussion. As soon as the government officially gets such a demand, it will see what to do."

The alliance is made up of the Groupe d'action patriotique pour la liberation de Centrafrique (GAPLC), the Mouvement des libérateurs Centrafricains pour la justice (MLCJ) and the Front démocratique Centrafricain (FDC). Its forces seized the army's four armoured vehicles and two four-wheel drive vehicles when they overpowered an army garrisson of some 100 men.

Detodia said the alliance resorted to arms "to protest the exclusionist policy" of Bozize's government.

Detodia claimed that since seizing power from President Ange-Felix Patasse in March 2003, Bozize has ruled on an ethnic basis.

"Many people from other ethnic groups and different political parties are ostracised and banned from participating in the management of the country," Detodia said.

Detodia is the chairman of the rebel alliance and heads the GAPLC. The alliance's spokesman is Abakar Saboune, leader of the MLCJ. Justin Hassane, who is also the coalition's head of military operations, is leader of the FDC. Hassane was a major in the Patasse's presidential guards.

Expressing the coalition's willingness to begin talks with the government, Saboune said: "We have no choice as far as the venue of the talks is concerned; but we would prefer to hold the discussions in our country to avoid any money-related problems over its holding."

Saboune said the talks could be held under national or international mediation, whichever was possible.

"There is no alternative left because we have been calling for talks for months now; if the government refuses to accept the present offer we will continue with the military option," Saboune said.

For now, he said, the alliances' troops would remain in Birao.

Situation in Birao

Regarding the situation in Birao, the alliance leaders said life was back to normal and civilians who had fled into the bush during their attack returned to their homes 24 hours later. The alliance said the head of the district, Albert Mbongo, was also working as usual.

"We respect civilians in our area, we have to protect them and I can say that no civilian was killed during the battle for the control of this town," Saboune said. "Many ran into the bush as they were afraid of our presence but we persuaded them to come back and we are living in harmony with them."

Since the rebels captured Birao, government officials have blamed neighbouring Sudan, accusing it of being behind the attack.

Bozize, who cut short a visit to China, returned home on Tuesday and said on national radio: "The CAR has been aggressed by the country that had harmed Chad. We do not see why Sudan should behave like that towards the CAR. President Bashir should cease to behave this way."

Ambassador summoned

On Monday, the CAR government summoned the Sudanese ambassador in the capital, Bangui, for an explanation of the capture of Birao. However, the ambassador has so far been unable to provide a response.

The capture of Birao is considered a major setback for Bozize's government. Reports from the region indicate that loyal forces deployed there suffered serious losses. Rebel sources said they killed 13 soldiers during the fighting, captured 10 others and that 54 others had joined the rebels.

The rebels also said they lost two men and that two others were wounded. The government has neither confirmed nor denied the casualty figures given by the rebels.

Although Birao is situated in a swampy region, isolated from the rest of the country during the May-November rainy season, its occupation by rebels constitutes a major threat for the country's security. The rebel alliance is able to reinforce its positions because they control the regional airport in Birao.

Since rebels were flown into the area in April, mainly to the small town of Tiringoulou, the army hads been unable to evict them.

"The regular army cannot access the region now as the whole zone is surrounded by water; we have to wait until mid-December to counter attack," an army major, who declined to be named, said.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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