BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Rebels in Central African Republic have taken the key town of Bambari under their control just days after they said they were halting their advance, officials and residents said Sunday.
Regional official Jean-Baptiste Manikaou said the rebels had gained control of Bambari, about 385 kilometers (240 miles) from the capital.
Maxime Andjingbayo, a local priest, said government forces fled the city of about 40,000 after about two hours of gunfire, and several of their vehicles were seized by the rebels.
"Since 2 p.m., the city is entirely controlled by the rebels," he told The Associated Press. "I saw them with my own eyes."
Rebel Col. Djouma Narkoyo denied that the group's actions challenged the recommendations made in the capital of neighboring Chad on Friday. Leaders of Central African states called for a cessation of hostilities in a statement at the end of a one-day summit.
"It's simply a preventative action aimed at blocking all eventual advances by loyalist soldiers preparing a counterattack," he said.
Josue Binoua, minister of territorial administration and decentralization, says if the rebels want peace, they should respect the mediation efforts under way and halt their advance.
"They can't ask for one thing and then the opposite. If they want peace, they should respect the decisions of the mediation," Binoua said on state radio.
The rebels began taking towns earlier this month, saying they wanted to renegotiate past peace deals with the government of this desperately poor African nation.
President Francois Bozize's government already has sought military help from neighboring Chad. About 2,000 Chadian forces arrived Tuesday, and are being used to secure strategic routes and fortify the capital, Bangui.
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 witnessed 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.
U.S. special forces troops have deployed to Central African Republic among other countries in the region in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive leader of Uganda's notorious rebel Lord's Resistance Army.