BANGUI, Central African Republic — A trio of rebel groups in the Central African Republic pushed ahead and took the central mining town of Bria before first light on Tuesday, the fifth town to fall into rebel hands in their two-week-old offensive, according to a statement from the rebel group which was confirmed by municipal officials.
The rebels are demanding that the government re-negotiate the terms of past peace accords, in what is being described as one of the biggest threats to the government of President Francois Bozize.
The mayor of the town of Bria, located around 600 kilometers (370 miles) northeast of the capital, Bangui, said the fighters invaded the town at around 4 a.m. on Tuesday, using heavy weapons to force their way into the military garrison. Bria, home to gold and diamond mines, is located roughly in the center of this vast, sparsely populated and deeply impoverished nation at the heart of Africa.
"They are now the masters of the military base in Bria," said Mayor Moussa Gounman. "Some people stayed and are hiding at home, while others fled and are hiding in the fields."
The rebel advance began two weeks ago, with a push by the Union for the Democratic Forces for Unity, known by its French acronym of UFDR in this former French colony. The group signed an April 13, 2007 peace accord, which paved the way for the fighters to join the regular army, an accord that the group's leaders say was never properly implemented.
Last week they took the northern towns of Ndele, Sam-Ouandja and Ouadda. They have since formed an alliance with two other rebel groups, and the trio is calling itself Seleka. They took Bamingui on Saturday, before proceeding to Bria, the capital of Haute-Kotto, one of the country's 14 prefectures, with a population of around 35,000 according to the 2003 census.
In a statement, the rebels said that victory is just around the corner. They said that their attack was justified in light of the "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic." They added that "the government has proven its extraordinary lack of sensitivity to political matters. They failed in their republican mission, having refused to seize the numerous opportunities that were extended to them to make peace."
The rebels claim that they want to open a dialogue with local officials in order to find a way out of this crisis. In Bangui, Minister of Defense Jean-Francis Bozize confirmed the fall of the five towns, saying that the army had retreated for tactical reasons. He said that he does not know what the rebels want to discuss, and has not been presented with formal demands.
Unease was spreading in the capital, as members of parliament led a march to protest the fall of the towns in the north and center.
This troubled nation of 4.5 million has weathered numerous coups, as well as repeated rebellions. The 66-year-old Bozize is himself an army officer, who came to power through a rebellion, taking Bangui in 2003.
The pace of events closely mirrors the recent rebel gains in the Central African Republic's far larger neighbor to the south, Congo, where a newly formed rebel group recently took the key, eastern provincial capital of Goma, using the seizure to twist the arm of Congo's ruler, President Joseph Kabila, forcing him to open new negotiations on the terms of an earlier peace deal.