Bangui — A rebel coalition operating in northern Central African Republic (CAR) captured a second town on Friday, their spokesman said.
"We captured the town of Ouadda-Djalle in the early hours of the morning," Abakar Saboune, spokesman of the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement coalition, told IRIN.
He said rebel forces had engaged government soldiers in a "fierce battle" before seizing the town.
However, Cyriaque Gonda, the spokesman of President Francois Bozize, said the town's current status was unclear.
"I cannot confirm the capture of the town of Ouadda-Djalle by rebel groups for the time being," he said. "All I know is that some rebels were located around this town a few days ago."
If confirmed, the capture of Ouadda-Djallé, 110 km south of Birao, would mark an increase in rebel activity in the north. The rebels captured the town of Birao on 30 October.
After that, the rebels had said they would not advance on the capital and would seek dialogue with the government. However, on 1 November, Bozize appealed to France, the one-time colonial power here, to help repulse the rebels. That seemed to trigger this rebel response.
"We have no alternative but to resort to military action since Gen Bozize and his regime are opposed to dialogue," Saboune said.
Control of Ouadda-Djallé is an important strategic gain, Saboune said, because it allows for the easy movement of armoured vehicles.
"We are waiting for our heavy materials to arrive in Ouadda-Djalle and we will launch a new attack on Ndele and the mining town of Bria," he said.
The capture of Ouadda-Djallé came 48 hours after thousands of people marched through the capital, Bangui, demanding that the army confront the rebels.
Earlier this week, military officials said an unidentified aircraft had made several landings in Birao during its capture. The officials said the plane was carrying materials for the rebels. An army captain, who requested anonymity, said on Friday that among the new equipment the rebels possessed were several armoured vehicles.
This latest rebel activity highlights the problem of the national forces' capability to control the north without outside help. A diplomat who spoke on conditions of anonymity said: "The country's army is not strong enough to cope with internal and external security problems. The national army cannot restore peace and order in the rebel-captured towns unless it receives foreign support."
Observers believe that President Idriss Deby of neighbouring Chad, who is also facing a rebellion at home, is unlikely to help CAR. Deby had helped Bozize seize power in March 2003 by putting Chadian troops at his disposal.
With roughly 4,500 troops, the CAR army needs restructuring. Most of the soldiers are overage and indiscipline is rife. Enrolment in the army is often based on ethnic or regional loyalties, making it more regional than national.