Rebels seize CAR presidential palace
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Rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) seized the presidential palace in the capital Bangui Sunday. President François Bozizé was not in the palace during the takeover and his whereabouts were not immediately known.
Rebels seized the presidential palace in the capital of the Central African Republic early Sunday following an advance by a rebel alliance from the north toward Bangui.
In a statement released Sunday, the rebel alliance – known as Seleka – referred to Central African Republic President François Bozizé as the “former president”.
The communiqué, signed by Justin Kombo Moustapha, secretary-general of Seleka, called for calm and expressed the rebels’ commitment to a peaceful transition.
An advisor to Bozizé told the Associated Press that the president had fled the city early Sunday, hours after rebels launched their assault.
Maximin Olouamat declined to provide details of Bozizé’s whereabouts but there were reports that he had crossed the Oubangi River into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo's Information Minister Lambert Mende however told FRANCE 24 that Bozizé himself was not in Congo although some of his family members had sought refuge there.
France – the country’s former colonial power – confirmed that Bozizé had fled the presidential palace Sunday. A French foreign ministry spokesman said Paris was taking note of the developments in CAR and called on all parties to exercise “utmost restraint”.
Reporting from Bangui, Radio France International/France 24 correspondent Hippolite Donossio said gunfire and explosions rocked the capital early Sunday following an overnight lull in fighting. According Donossio, residents in the northern suburbs of Bangui said rebels were using heavy weapons.
‘We’re very worried. We have no electricity.’
Sunday’s developments came the morning after Seleka rebels reached the northern outskirts of the city on Saturday evening, where they stayed until the early morning onslaught toward the presidential palace.
Residents of Bangui told Radio France International (RFI) that many areas of the capital were left without electricity on Saturday night after a power station north of Bangui was sabotaged.
“We're very worried. We have no electricity,” a Bangui resident told RFI late Saturday. “The radio has been cut off, the television has been cut off too. We can't charge our phones. We are stuck like this. We have no way of getting information.”
Hours after rebels seized the presidential palace, there were reports of looting by armed men as well as residents, according to witness accounts.
“The situation is tense,” said FRANCE 24 Observer André Lemonnier, a French citizen who owns a restaurant in Bangui. “We were given instructions: do not move, do not go out, lock your home and wait until things clear. Above all, don’t open shops and restaurants because of looting.”
In a phone interview with AFP, Nicaise Kabissou, resident of a downtown Bangui neighborhood, said, “There is a lot of looting by armed men. They break the doors, and after that, the people arrive and start looting. We are afraid. I am not going out, I’m staying at home.”
Seleka rebels began seizing towns across the country’s impoverished north in December but stopped their advance and signed a peace accord with the government following negotiations in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. That deal was to allow Bozize to remain in power until 2016.
But the agreement quickly collapsed, with the rebels saying their demands, including the release of political prisoners, had not been met.
“The Seleka is an alliance of different groups basically rooted in the north of the country, where people have claimed for years that the state should have invested more in the region,” said Roland Marchal, a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research, based at Sciences-Po in Paris.
According to Lydie Boka, director of the Lille-based think-tank StrategiCo, the Seleka rebels are “fairly organised” and enjoy some measure of support from a population frustrated with the corruption and nepotism of Bozizé’s rule. Boka however noted that “the real challenge [for the rebel alliance] starts now. We’ll see whether they can rise up to this challenge and come up with a political programme that holds”.
In a statement released Sunday afternoon, a Seleka spokesman said the rebel alliance wanted to organise a transition toward democratic governance.
“Central Africans must meet around a table to decide the path for their common future, which will necessarily pass by a consensual management of the transition which, in time, will lead to the organisation of democratic elections,” said Nelson Ndjadder of Seleka's CPSK faction.
Regional dissatisfaction with Bozizé’s track record
Bozizé came to power in 2003 after his rebels entered Bangui unopposed and ousted former president Ange-Félix Patassé.
Patassé was widely discredited for his alliance with then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and for providing shelter to a number of armed groups that were fighting in the region.
When Bozizé came to power, there were hopes that the situation would change. But according to Marchal, there was widespread dissatisfaction over Bozize’s track record among CAR citizens as well as regional leaders, such as Chadian President Idriss Deby.
“They feel that Bozizé has sometimes played a dirty game with the Chadian community, which is quite numerous in CAR. This is not acceptable,” explained Marchal. “I think they pushed him to change, to reform. It failed and that’s why Seleka basically got the support or the green light at different moments. There are regional troops in CAR but actually they just let them [the rebels] enter Bangui.”
France, the former colonial power, has around 250 soldiers in CAR, which were deployed last week to secure the international airport. An additional 1,200 other French citizens live in the mineral-rich, but traditionally mismanaged country.
But according to Marchal, France has been reluctant to intervene in the latest crisis in CAR.
“France is just fed-up, exhausted by CAR because there is no structural or strategic interest there and CAR all the time requires attention because of their adventurous way of managing the country,” said Marchal. “France feels that this time, it should just let the regional countries – which is Chad and Congo Brazzaville – lead the mediation and get a solution for the country.”