BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Rebels in Central African Republic seized another town in their rapid offensive Thursday, residents said, moving to within about 400 kilometers (250 miles) of the capital as the rebels said they were ready for negotiations with the government.
The alliance of rebel groups behind the attacks also said they'd hold onto the towns they'd already taken.
"While awaiting to see the realization of this step, the advance of our troops has been unilaterally halted," the alliance known as Seleka said in a statement given to journalists.
The rapidly two-week offensive by rebels seeking to re-negotiate past peace deals has prompted "strong concern" from U.N. Security Council members.
"They condemned the attacks conducted by armed groups in the last few days in northeastern CAR and associated human rights abuses," the council said in a statement. "These developments threatened the civilian population and the stability of CAR. "
President Francois Bozize's government already has sought military help from neighboring Chad. Some 2,000 Chadian forces arrived Tuesday, about a week after the rebel offensive began, and will be used to secure strategic routes and fortify the capital of Bangui.
In just two weeks, the rebels have taken at least seven towns including Batangafo, which residents said they seized early Thursday.
"A vehicle entered to drop off a first contingent of rebels, then others arrived in a procession of motorcycles," around 10 a.m., resident Ousman Ngang-Dan told The Associated Press.
The rebel alliance known as Seleka took three towns on Dec. 10, including the northern city of Ndele.
Vincent Pouget, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bangui, said that more than 1,000 people have sought shelter there at a Catholic mission and at a military base near the airport.
And fears are growing by the day in the capital of Bangui, home to some 600,000 people.
"The mood in Bangui at the moment is one of worry," Pouget said, as residents who have lived through previous rebellions watch the armed groups sweep towns in the north.
The rebel alliance known as Seleka comes from three separate rebel groups who are demanding that the government re-negotiate the terms of past peace accords.
Central African Republic is a desperately poor, landlocked country that has suffered numerous rebellions since independence from France. President Bozize himself came to power in 2003 through a rebellion that was backed by Chadian forces.
Despite the nation's wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped.
The nation's woes also have been compounded by its proximity to other conflict-ridden states. The northeast borders Sudan's war-wracked Darfur region, and rebels and refugees have crossed both sides of the porous frontier.
Uganda's notorious rebel Lord's Resistance Army also has taken advantage of the weak state to take refuge here — attacking and abducting civilians with near-impunity. U.S. special forces troops have deployed to Central African Republic among other countries in the region in the hunt for its fugitive leader Joseph Kony.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.