BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Soldiers from neighboring Chad are now helping the government of Central African Republic fight a rapidly advancing rebel movement, an official said Wednesday, as the fighters claimed to have seized a sixth town.
Their arrival underlines the growing threat posed to President Francois Bozize by the rebels behind the two-week offensive. The fighters urged the Chadian forces not to attack them in a statement released Wednesday.
Thierry Zamby, a spokesman for the defense minister, said that the 2,000 Chadian troops arrived Tuesday. Forces were being stationed in the strategic town of Sibut in an effort to protect the capital.
"They are tasked with reinforcing the Central African Republic forces in the counterattack to retake the cities that have fallen into the hands of rebels," Zamby said.
The Seleka fighters said Wednesday they had taken the northern town of Kabo early Wednesday, a claim that could not be immediately corroborated.
Seleka is made up of a trio of rebel groups now demanding that the government re-negotiate the terms of past peace accords.
Early Tuesday, the fighters used heavy weapons to seize the central mining town of Bria, located about 600 kilometers (370 miles) northeast of the capital, Bangui.
Residents in the northern city of Kaga-Bandoro later reported seeing the Chadian forces passing through town in Land Cruisers headed in that direction.
"There were numerous, well-armed soldiers on board," said Bonaventure Ngomba-Katikkiro, a journalist at Radio Kaga in the town.
It's not the first time that Chad has lent military support to Central African Republic, a troubled nation of 4.5 million that has weathered numerous coups, as well as repeated rebellions.
In 2003, the president himself came to power with the help of Chadian forces who backed his rebellion in the former French colony.
The latest rebel advance began two weeks ago, with a push by the Union for the Democratic Forces for Unity, known by its French acronym of UFDR in this former French colony. The group signed an April 13, 2007 peace accord, which paved the way for the fighters to join the regular army, an accord that the group's leaders say was never properly implemented.
Last week they took the northern towns of Ndele, Sam-Ouandja and Ouadda. They took Bamingui on Saturday, before proceeding to Bria, the capital of Haute-Kotto, one of the country's 14 prefectures, with a population of around 35,000 according to the 2003 census.
In a statement, the rebels said that victory is just around the corner. They said that their attack was justified in light of the "thirst for justice, for peace, for security and for economic development of the people of Central African Republic."
They added that "the government has proven its extraordinary lack of sensitivity to political matters. They failed in their republican mission, having refused to seize the numerous opportunities that were extended to them to make peace."
In Bangui, Minister of Defense Jean-Francis Bozize has said that he does not know what the rebels want to discuss, and has not been presented with formal demands.