BANGUI, Central African Republic — Kpademona Marcel and other residents of the capital of Central African Republic have watched in fear as rebels from the country's north seized control of more than half the country in less than a month. On Tuesday, all he could do was pray that a solution to the crisis could be found without the violence reaching Bangui.
"We are afraid for our nation and for our fellow citizens in the countryside," Marcel said, standing on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral before a New Year's Day Mass. "The rebels are imposing themselves on the population and stealing things. We are here praying for peace."
As a new year began, the fate of the capital with 700,000 people, remained unclear. Government forces backed by a regional multinational force held a line in Damara, just 75 kilometers (45 miles) from Bangui. The rebels hold the city of Sibut, about 185 kilometers (115 miles) from Bangui.
While President Francois Bozize, after nearly a decade in power, has proposed a coalition government to include the rebels, a spokesman for the alliance of rebel groups advancing through the country said Monday they did not trust his offer. Former colonial power France already has said it will not protect Bozize's regime and has about 600 troops in the country just to protect its own interests.
Trucks full of soldiers bounced on the rutted roads of Bangui that are dotted with shacks where people can charge their mobile phones. Police officers stopped vehicles at intersections in another sign of stepped up security in this capital at the heart of Africa where even the banana and palm tree leaves are coated in heavy red dust from the earth.
Troops from neighboring nations arrived in the country, with a contingent from Gabon expected Tuesday. Their arrival comes a day after about 120 soldiers flew in from Republic of Congo with a mission to help stabilize the area between rebels and the government forces.
The political instability already has prompted the United States government to evacuate its ambassador and about 40 other people. There have been no mass civilian evacuations from the capital, though many residents have temporarily relocated to the southern side of Bangui, considered further from the path of a potential rebel invasion arriving from the north.
One woman in Bangui said she knew many people who already had fled the city but said she had too many family members to leave herself.
"I have five children and two grandchildren. I prefer to stay here and die with my children if it comes to that," she said, giving her name only as Lucienne.
In the Bimbo neighborhood, traders went about their business, selling everything from leafy greens to meat at roadside stands.
"We don't support what the rebels are doing," said banana farmer Narcisse Ngo, as a young boy played nearby with a monkey corpse for sale along with other meat. "They should be at the table negotiating without weapons. We are all Central Africans."
The landlocked nation of 4.4 million people is rich in diamonds, gold and uranium and yet remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Central African Republic has suffered many army revolts, coups and rebellions since gaining independence from France in 1960.
The rebels behind the current instability signed a 2007 peace accord allowing them to join the regular army, but insurgent leaders say the deal wasn't fully implemented and has made a variety of demands including payments to former combatants.