CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC REBELS HALT ADVANCE, AGREE TO PEACE TALKS
By Ange Aboa
January 2, 2013
DAMARA, Central African Republic -- Rebels in Central African Republic said they had halted their advance on the capital on Wednesday and agreed to start peace talks, averting a clash with regionally backed troops.
The Séléka rebels had pushed to within striking distance of Bangui after a three-week onslaught and threatened to oust President Francois Bozizé, accusing him of reneging on a previous peace deal and cracking down on dissidents.
Their announcement on Wednesday gave the leader only a limited reprieve as the fighters told Reuters they might insist on his removal in the negotiations.
"I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today because we want to enter talks in (Gabon's capital) Libreville for a political solution," said Séléka spokesman Eric Massi, speaking by telephone from Paris.
"I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozizé," he said.
Bozizé on Wednesday sacked his Army Chief of Staff and took over the defense minister's role from his son, Jean-Francis Bozizé, according to a decree read on national radio, a day after publicly criticizing the military for failing to repel the rebels.
The advance by Séléka, an alliance of mostly northeastern rebel groups, was the latest in a series of revolts in a country at the heart of one of Africa's most turbulent regions -- and the most serious since the Chad-backed insurgency that swept Bozizé to power in 2003.
Diplomatic sources have said talks organized by central African regional bloc ECCAS could start on January 10. The United States, the European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.
Central African Republic is one of the least developed countries in the world despite its deposits of gold, diamonds, and other minerals. French nuclear energy group Areva mines the country's Bakouma uranium deposit -- France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.
RELIEF IN BANGUI
News of the rebel halt eased tension in Bangui, where residents had been stockpiling food and water and staying indoors after dark.
"They say they are no longer going to attack Bangui, and that's great news for us," said Jaqueline Loza in the crumbling riverside city.
ECCAS members Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon, and Cameroon have sent hundreds of soldiers to reinforce CAR's army after a string of rebel victories since early December.
Gabonese General Jean Felix Akaga, commander of the regional force, said his troops were defending the town of Damara, 75 km (45 miles) north of Bangui and close to the rebel front.
"Damara is a red line not to be crossed . . . Damara is in our control and Bangui is secure," he told Reuters. "If the rebellion decides to approach Damara, they know they will encounter a force that will react."
Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs, rocket propelled grenade launchers, and truck-mounted machine guns had taken up positions across the town, which was otherwise nearly-abandoned.
Some of the fighters wore turbans that covered their faces and had charms strung around their necks and arms meant to protect them against enemy bullets.
Chad's President Idriss Deby, one of Bozizé's closest allies, had warned the rebels the regional force would confront them if they approached the town.
Chad provided training and equipment to the rebellion that brought Bozize to power by ousting then-president Ange Felix Patassé, who Chad accused of supporting Chadian dissidents.
Chad is also keen to keep a lid on instability in the territory close to its main oil export pipeline and has stepped in to defend Bozizé against insurgents in the past.
A CAR government minister told Reuters the foreign troop presence strengthened Bozizé's bargaining position ahead of the Libreville peace talks.
"The rebels are now in a position of weakness," the minister said, asking not to be named. "They should therefore stop imposing conditions like the departure of the president."
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local soldiers track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.
France has a 600-strong force in CAR to defend about 1,200 of its citizens who live there.
Paris used air strikes to defend Bozize against a rebellion in 2006. But French President Francois Hollande turned down a request for more help, saying the days of intervening in other countries' affairs were over.
(Additional reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana in Bangui and Jon Herskovitz in Johannesburg; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Janet Lawrence)
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC REBELS AGREE TO TALKS
By Afua Hirsch
** Hope for peace agreement as fighters halt advance, but president's future remains uncertain **
January 2, 2013
Rebels who have captured large parts of the Central African Republic have halted their advance and agreed to take part in talks, leading to fresh hopes of a peace agreement.
The Séléka coalition of rebel fighters, which began seizing regional capitals and mining areas in the diamond-rich country last month, said it will not attack capital city Bangui and is expected to begin negotiations with the government in Libreville, the capital of nearby Gabon next week.
But the fate of President Francois Bozizé continues to hang in the balance as the rebels -- who accuse Bozizé of failing to honor the terms of an earlier peace deal -- say they might insist on his removal.
"I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today, because we want to enter talks in Libreville for a political solution," Séléka spokesman Eric Massi told Reuters.
"I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozizé," he said.
Bozizé has pledged not to run for a third term in presidential elections scheduled for 2016. But there are signs that rebel demands for him to step down could scupper negotiations. Bozizé -- who used military force to seize power in 2003 but has since won two elections -- has said that he will form a government of national unity.
Residents in Bangui, which remains under curfew, expressed relief after days of speculation that the city could fall under rebel control. In recent days civilian supporters of Bozizé have erected roadblocks in an attempt to prevent a incursion, and residents have stockpiled food and water. There have also been marches and violent protests outside the French embassy, after some people accused France of abandoning its former colony.
France has 250 troops in Central African Republic but said it would only deploy them to protect its embassy and other interests. There are around 1,200 French citizens in the country, many working for mining firms, such as French nuclear giant Areva, which has a significant uranium mine in south-east CAR.
A deployment of troops from nearby central African nations has been bolstered, as an extra 360 soldiers from Gabon, Congo Brazzaville, and Cameroon began arriving in CAR on Tuesday, bringing the total number of central African troops in the country to 760.
Neighboring Chad -- where president Idriss Deby is one of Bozize's closest allies -- has sent 400 troops. Bozizé used his nationally broadcast new year's address to thank Chad for its support.
"Thanks to the Chadian army, you are listening to me on the radio and watching me on television," he said. "Otherwise, we would all be in the bush. Bangui would be empty today and embroiled in unrest. Thanks to the Chadian army, thanks to President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad."
Chad -- whose military is one of the more respected in west and central Africa -- has repeatedly shored up Bozizé's regime, assisting his rise to power after a brief war in 2003 and fortifying the government amid previous threats. The Chadian and other central African troops hope to defend the key strategic town of Damara, the last settlement between the capital, about 45 miles away, and the rebel-held north.
But humanitarian concerns remain for the country, which despite its mineral wealth has 60% of the population living in poverty. Aid groups have been pulling out of the country, including the United Nations, which has evacuated more than 200 non-essential staff, and children's charity Unicef, which has relocated all international staff to Cameroon.
Instability is nothing new in the Central African Republic. The country has faced political unrest since independence from France in 1960, including numerous attempted coups.
The country has also suffered scores of civilian casualties as a result of internal and international rebel incursions, with insurgencies in Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Congo all affecting the country.
The former vice-president of the DRC, Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, is on trial at the international criminal court for war crimes and crimes against humanity including rape and pillaging allegedly committed in CAR during 2002-3.
South Africa added its voice to the growing list of nations concerned about the situation in CAR on Wednesday.
"We demand that the armed groups immediately cease hostilities, withdraw from captured cities and cease any further advances towards the city of Bangui. We call on all parties to refrain from any acts of violence against civilians and to respect human rights," a statement said.
The African Union, United States, European Union, and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians, while the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) has organised the coming talks aimed at solving the crisis.
U.S., FRANCE DEPLOY TROOPS TO CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
By Patrick O'Connor
December 31, 2012
The U.S. and France are deploying additional troops to the Central African Republic (CAR), as anti-government militias close on the capital, Bangui. The intervention is part of a wider ratcheting up of imperialist military operations across Africa, with Washington and its European allies working to maintain their strategic domination of the continent and control of its natural resources.
The U.S. and France were already conducting military operations in CAR before a rebel offensive threatened to topple the government of President François Bozizé.
CAR is one of several central African countries in which at least 100 American Special Forces are active, supposedly pursuing fighters of the Lord’s Resistance Army. President Barack Obama advised Congress on Saturday that he had ordered a “standby security force” of 50 troops to CAR, citing a “deteriorating security situation” that required the withdrawal of US embassy staff and other American citizens from Bangui.
France has likewise intervened, on the basis of protecting its 1,200 citizens in the country. After maintaining soldiers in CAR on a near continuous basis since granting formal independence to its former colony in 1960, Paris has in recent days boosted its previously existing 250-troop deployment to nearly 600.
Another 500 foreign troops deployed by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), mostly from neighbouring Chad, are also in the country. The Chadian government has pledged to send another 2,000 troops to support the CAR government.
President Bozizé’s administration this month lost control over much of CAR. Séléka (“alliance” in the Sango national language), a loose coalition of anti-government militias, has seized towns across the country’s north and east and is reportedly within 75 kilometers [47 miles] of the capital. Séléka accuses the government of reneging on 2007-2008 peace agreements mandating payments to rebel guerrillas and their integration into the national army.
Some residents of Bangui, population 600,000, are fleeing in fear of a rebel offensive, while the price of basic foodstuffs has reportedly risen by more than 25 percent. The government has imposed a night-time curfew that is reportedly being enforced by young people armed with machetes at makeshift barricades erected across the city’s main roads.
CAR is one of the most desperately impoverished countries in the world. Life expectancy is just 50 years, only three other countries have a worse infant mortality and maternal mortality rate, and the majority of CAR’s 4.5 million people survive through subsistence agriculture. The stark contrast between the country’s extreme poverty and its significant natural wealth -- including diamonds, gold, uranium, timber, and oil -- reflects both the devastating legacy of colonial rule and ongoing imperialist oppression.
Washington has seized on the crisis to further extend its military operations in Africa. The CAR deployment comes just days after the U.S. military announced that a dedicated army brigade, with about 3,500 troops, would carry out continuous activities across the continent. The newly created brigade is a component of Obama’s drive to ramp up the Pentagon’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), which was first created in 2007.
A renewed scramble for Africa is underway. U.S. imperialism’s aggressive pursuit of the continent’s oil and other natural resources is part of the Obama administration’s drive to counter China’s growing strategic influence, in the Pacific and internationally. Beijing has been developing close diplomatic and economic ties with several African states in recent years. The continent is now an important source of energy resources for both the U.S. and China. With greater frequency, Washington is retaliating with military force.
The relatively limited American military deployment to CAR could quickly develop into a wider intervention. Pretexts are readily available -- a worsening humanitarian crisis in the country and the role Islamic fundamentalist elements reportedly play in the Séléka force. The occupation of northern Mali, in western Africa, by Al Qaeda-linked militias has provided the rationale for the preparation of a foreign military intervention, authorized by the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. The U.S. and France have been at the forefront of agitation for an intervention into Mali, following the country’s destabilization through the U.S.-NATO regime-change operation in neighboring Libya last year.
CAR President Bozizé has urged the U.S. and France to intervene against the rebel forces. In a speech last Thursday, Bozize accused unspecified “foreigners” of backing the rebels and suggested that the unrest was triggered by his granting of oil exploration contracts earlier this year to Chinese and South African corporations.
“Before giving oil to the Chinese I met with [oil company] Total in Paris and told them to take the oil. Nothing happened. I gave oil to the Chinese and it became a problem,” he said.
French corporation Areva is currently developing one of CAR’s largest foreign investments, a uranium mine in the country’s south.
Pro-intervention protests, organised by or tacitly endorsed by the government, were staged outside the American and French embassies in Bangui last week. Demonstrators reportedly accused Paris of supporting the rebels.
French President Francois Hollande claimed neutrality, declaring: “If we are present, it is not to protect a régime, it is to protect our nationals and our interests, and in no way to intervene in the internal affairs of a country, in this case Central Africa. Those days are gone.”
Behind this bogus “non-intervention” posture, the French government is undoubtedly working hand in hand with the Obama administration to determine the outcome of the crisis in CAR.
France has been intimately involved in every change of government in its former colony since 1960. Bozize received French military training before becoming CAR’s youngest general when he was just 32, under the notorious self-declared emperor, Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Paris armed and financed Bokassa while he was in power between 1966 and 1979, before he was replaced in a coup that was spearheaded by an invasion of hundreds of French Special Forces.
After spending years in exile in France, Bozize attempted several military coups before finally seizing power in 2003. The French government then provided crucial support, including having French military forces direct operations and launch air strikes against rebel guerrillas in 2006. If Paris now refuses to come to Bozize’s aid, it suggests that French imperialism either wants anti-government forces in power or some other change in government in Bangui.
After meeting with African Union Chairman Thomas Yayi Boni yesterday, Bozize declared that he was willing to form a new “national unity” government with Séléka. Negotiations between the government and the rebels are scheduled for early next month in the West African country of Gabon.
[Translated from L'Humanité (Paris)]
BANGUI SURROUNDED, THE POTENTATE AT BAY
By Rosa Moussaoui
** Yesterday Séléka rebels were still threatening to march on Bangui, despite offers of "dialogue" and power-sharing from François Bozizé, in power since 2003 **
January 2, 2012
Bangui is surrounded. The Séléka rebel coalition that is threatening François Bozizé's régime was at the gates of the city of Damara yesterday, 75km (47 miles) north of the capital of the Central African Republic.
"Bozizé must leave, it's clear, we demand his departure, that he leave power," Éric Massi, the armed rebellion's spokesperson, told Agence-France Presse. Séléka's lightning offensive, launched December 10, has shaken the man who himself seized power by force in 2003 in a coup d'état.
Neither the former colonial power's appeals for "dialogue" nor François Bozizé's belated offers of negotiation and power-sharing seem to dent the determination of the rebellion, which is still threatening to advance toward Bangui.
While armed forces sent by other countries of central Africa are deployed around the capital, the rebels, for their part, are calling for an African interposition to "put an end to abuses and the assassination of prisoners," in Éric Massi's words. France is maintaining a prudent reserve in the affair, after the violent demonstrations on Dec. 26 outside the French embassy saw partisans of the régime blame Paris for not backing the Bangui régime openly enough.
It must be noted, without going back to the tragicomic Bokassa era, that France's interference in the affairs of her ex-colony are regularly the subject of heated debate. Thus in 1996 there were objections in France from every side of the political spectrum to the bombing of certain districts of Bangui by the French army in order to put an end to a mutiny in the army of the Central African Republic.
One of the consequences of that too ostentatious support of then-president Ange-Félix Patassé was the closing in the spring of 1998 of Bangui's French military base, which made sense in the context of the strategy of concentrating French forces in neighboring Gabon.
Last week 150 marine paratroopers and 180 troops from the French Foreign Legion were sent to reinforce the 250 French soldiers already stationed in the country. Officially, in order to protect French nationals.
But it is certainly the case that Paris is not losing sight of French interests. The Central African Republic is a caricature of an extraction economy typical of Africa's post-colonies. The French energy giant Areva is developing in Bakouma, 900km (560 miles) northeast of Bangui, a project to mine uranium. The deposit was discovered in the 1960s... by the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-003
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