BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — The embattled president of Central African Republic on Tuesday accused the rebels who have seized the northern half of the country of being backed by "foreign terrorists" and said he is heading to this week's peace talks to defend democracy.
President Francois Bozize, who himself took power in 2003 following a rebellion, has offered to form a coalition government with the rebels. Some fighters, though, insist they will not join the government unless he steps down.
While Bozize's government has faced previous challenges from rebel groups, this latest joint offensive launched one month ago has posed the gravest threat to his rule during his nearly 10 years in power.
"In a democracy, change is made at the ballot box and not with weapons," he said Tuesday during a news conference at the presidential palace in Bangui, the capital.
Rebel leaders and the delegation representing Bozize's government already have arrived in Gabon, where the peace talks are set to begin later in the week. Bozize said that if the rebels come with something positive to say, he is prepared to hear it.
"If the terrorists come to talk terrorism, the whole world will know it," he said. "If they come to discuss defending the cause of Central African Republic, we are going to listen to them. If there is something positive, we will accept it. If it's armed robbery, we will not accept it."
The rebels of the Seleka alliance come from four separate groups that have now joined forces against Bozize's government.
On Tuesday, the president again accused outside forces of aiding them and said "there is a risk that a religious cause is behind Seleka."
He said it appeared there were Janjaweed, or fighters from neighboring Sudan, along with "people who don't speak Sango, French or even English" from beyond the country's borders.
"Foreign terrorists are attacking the established power in Central African Republic. Under those circumstances, I am proud of having served my country normally, that democracy is functioning normally," he said.
Seleka began its offensive Dec. 10, and the rebels have seized a dozen towns in a month's time. They said they were halting their advance before reaching Bangui in an attempt to give the peace negotiations a chance.
However, a spokesman for Seleka in Paris warned earlier this week that they still had the strength to attack the government-fortified city of Damara as well as Bangui.
"If we wanted to take Damara, it would already be done. We have the means to take Damara and also to take Bangui today, but we don't want the capital to suffer attacks," rebel spokesman Eric Massi told The Associated Press in Paris on Monday.
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.
They have claimed that their actions are justified in light of the "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic."
Despite Central African Republic's wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped. The land-locked nation of 4.4 million, a former French colony, is among the poorest countries in the world.
Associated Press writer Hippolyte Marboua contributed to this report.