By Paul-Marin Ngoupana
BANGUI (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African Republic took control of a strategic town north of the capital on Saturday after soldiers defending it withdrew, ramping up tensions ahead of planned peace talks.
The three-week-old uprising by SELEKA rebels poses the biggest threat yet to President Francois Bozize's near ten-year rule over the former French colony - a nation plagued by poverty and turmoil despite its rich natural resources.
Regional neighbors agreed on Friday to send more troops to shore up CAR's army after a string of defeats and after French President Francois Hollande rejected a plea for military help made by embattled President Francois Bozize.
Insurgents riding motorbikes and packed into pickup trucks streamed into Sibut, a regional capital on a major crossroads about 190 kilometers (115 miles) north of the capital Bangui, unopposed early on Saturday, said witnesses.
"(They) took positions at strategic points in the town, firing their guns," said Yvon Bema, a 27-year-old Sibut resident who fled to Bangui. "The national army and the Chadians had left on Friday in the direction of Bangui," he added.
The land around Sibut had been seen as a buffer between the rebels and Bangui. Government troops there were backed by soldiers from neighboring Chad.
CAR's minister of territorial administration, Josue Binoua, confirmed on local radio that Sibut was occupied by rebels after troops withdrew to Damara, about 75 km north of Bangui, where clashes had been reported on Friday.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) - which already has more than 500 peacekeepers in CAR - announced overnight a decision to send in more troops ahead of talks planned between the rebels and the government in early January.
"We are thinking of a way to deploy this mission as quickly as possible," Gabon Foreign Minister Emmanuel Issoze Ngondet told reporters after a meeting with his regional counterparts in Gabon's capital Libreville. He did not say how many soldiers would be deployed.
The ECCAS soldiers, mostly from Chad, are part of the MICOPAX (Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central African Republic) peacekeeping force.
The SELEKA rebels have threatened to overthrow Bozize if he does not honour a previous peace deal offering former fighters pay and jobs. They have said they will stay out of Bangui for now to give peace talks a chance.
Officials in Bangui said on Friday rebels had agreed to send delegates to Libreville in early January, though a rebel spokesman was not immediately available to comment.
Bozize came to power in a rebellion in 2003 and has since won two elections. France launched air strikes against rebels challenging him in 2006, but Paris has said it will not intervene militarily in the current conflict.
The United States said on Thursday it had closed its embassy in Bangui and evacuated its staff.
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local forces try to track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four African nations.
About 1,200 French nationals live in CAR, mostly working for mining firms and aid groups in the capital. French defense ministry sources said Paris had sent in 150 troops to Bangui late on Friday to bolster an existing 250-strong deployment safeguarding French citizens.
French nuclear energy group Areva mines the Bakouma uranium deposit in CAR's south - France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.
(Additional reporting by Phal Gualbert Mezui Ndong in Libreville and Catherin Bremer in Paris; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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