BANGUI, Central African Republic — The leader of the African Union, Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi, has proposed a government of national unity to resolve the rebel conflict in Central African Republic.
Boni Yayi arrived here Sunday to try to find a negotiated resolution to the country's crisis. The president of the African Union met with President Francois Bozize and then made an appeal to the rebels.
"I beg my rebellious brothers, I ask them to cease hostilities, to make peace with President (Francois) Bozize and the Central African people," said Boni Yayi at a press conference in Bangui, the capital. "If you stop fighting, you are helping to consolidate peace in Africa. African people do not deserve all this suffering. The African continent needs peace and not war."
Boni Yayi said that Bozize had pledged to have an open dialogue with the rebels with the goal of establishing a government of national unity, which would include representation from the rebels and the Bozize government.
Bozize also addressed the conference and said, although he plans to stay in power until his term ends in 2016, he is not against having the rebels enter a coalition government with him.
"We'll probably be able to set up a national unity government. I apologize to the suffering Central African people," said Bozize. "It is a message of peace to my brothers of Central African Republic, "said Bozize.
The African Union's leader arrived in Bangui when many feared there would be a fight over the capital, Bangui, a city of 600,000.
According to several families in Bangui, members of the Presidential Guard have kidnapped people suspected of supporting the rebels who have seized 10 cities in the country's north over the past three weeks.
A rebel spokesman, Col. Juma Narkoyo, warned Bozize: "We warn the head of state and his family to stop abducting our parents. They have nothing to do with it. If he wants to solve its problems, he comes to meet us on the ground. We expect firm feet. " H0e said that a dozen people have already been arrested in Bangui.
On his arrival in Bangui, Yayi Boni had a private meeting for more than two hours with Bozize in the VIP lounge of Mpoko airport, which is secured by French troops.
So far Boni Yayi has no meetings scheduled with rebels or with the democratic opposition.
Boni Yayi's diplomatic effort comes as France has deployed an additional 180 troops to protect its interests.
The French reinforcements arrived Sunday from nearby Gabon, bringing the total French military force in the capital, Bangui, to nearly 600, Col. Thierry Burkhard told The Associated Press Sunday. The troops are to protect French residents in the capital, which many fear will be attacked by the rebels.
As fears mounted that the rebels would attack Bangui, Bozize imposed a curfew from 7 p.m. until 5 a.m.
Bozize earlier appealed to France for help against the rebels, but French President Francois Hollande's government said it would only protect French interests and would not prop up the Bangui government.
As the rebels have made a rapid advance across the country's north, residents in the capital now fear the insurgents could attack at any time, despite assurances by rebel leaders that they are willing to engage in dialogue instead of attacking Bangui.
On Saturday the rebels seized the city of Sibut, 185 kilometers (114 miles) from Bangui.
Sibut, a key transportation hub, fell without a shot being fired because the Central African Republic army and forces from neighboring Chad had pulled back to Damara, 75 kilometers (46 miles) from Bangui on Friday, said Minister of Territorial Administration Josie Binoua.
Neighboring African countries have agreed to send more forces to support the Bozize government.
Representatives from the 10-nation Economic Community of Central African States, or ECCAS, agreed at a meeting in Gabon Friday to send forces to CAR, but did not did not specify how many troops would be sent or how quickly the military assistance would arrive.
The ECCAS states, with more than 500 soldiers via their regional peacekeeping force in Central Africa, over the weekend warned the rebels to halt their advances.
"ECCAS forces are on high alert, and the city of Damara is the limit not to cross," said Antonio Di Garcia, the ECCAS representative in Bangui. He urged the government forces and the rebels to hold to their current positions and to begin dialogue.
The ongoing instability prompted the United States to evacuate about 40 people, including the U.S. ambassador, from Bangui on an U.S. Air Force plane bound for Kenya, said U.S. officials who insisted on anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the operation.
The United States has special forces troops in the country who are assisting in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of another rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army. The U.S. special forces remain in the country, the U.S. military's Africa Command said from its headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
The evacuation of the U.S. diplomats came after criticism of how the U.S. handled diplomatic security before and during the attack on its consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. The ambassador and three other Americans were killed in that attack.
French diplomats have remained in Bangui despite a violent demonstration outside its embassy last week. Dozens of protesters, angry at France's lack of help against rebel forces, threw rocks at the French Embassy in Bangui and stole a French flag.
This landlocked nation of 4.4 million people has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since gaining independence in 1960 and remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The current president himself came to power nearly a decade ago in the wake of a rebellion in this resource-rich yet deeply poor country.
Bozize's government earlier reached out to longtime ally Chad, which pledged to send 2,000 troops to bolster Central African Republic's own forces.
The rebels behind the most recent instability signed a 2007 peace accord allowing them to join the regular army, but insurgent leaders say the deal wasn't fully implemented.
The rebels say they are fighting because of their "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic." The rebels also are demanding that the government make payments to ex-combatants.
Despite Central African Republic's wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the violence and reiterated its demand that the armed groups "immediately cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities and cease any further advance towards the city of Bangui."
Associated Press Writer Greg Keller contributed to this piece from Paris.