BANGUI – Rebels in the Central African Republic fighting to topple President Francois Bozize seized control of the capital Bangui on Sunday, with the whereabouts of their archfoe unknown.
Fighters in the Seleka rebel coalition launched a swift assault on Bangui after the collapse of a two-month-old peace deal in the notoriously unstable former French colony -- ignoring a call for talks to avoid a “bloodbath”.
Witnesses reported widespread looting by armed men as anarchy reigned in the riverside capital in the wake of the seizure, with attacks on shops, houses and cars.
“The rebels are in control of the city even though there is still some sporadic gunfire,” a source in multinational central African force FOMAC told AFP.
Gunbattles had erupted around the presidential palace early Sunday after the rebels moved in to the city on Saturday, facing little resistance from the poorly equipped and ill-trained army.
The whereabouts of Bozize, who himself came to power through a coup in 2003, remained a mystery.
He has not been seen since his return from a brief visit to South Africa on Friday. Officials from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville said he was not in their countries.
“We have taken the presidential palace. Bozize was not there,” one of the rebel commanders on the ground, Colonel Djouma Narkoyo, told AFP.
He said the rebels were planning to move on to the national radio station, where Seleka leader Michel Djotodia would make an address.
“Today will be decisive,” Narkoyo had said earlier. “We call on our brothers in FACA (the Central African army) to lay down their arms.”
There were no official statements from the government Sunday about the latest developments, although a high-ranking military source confirmed: “What is certain is that they (the rebels) have taken the city.”
Heavy gunbattles erupted in Bangui at about 0700 GMT, but later the shooting became more sporadic, an AFP correspondent said. The shots caused panic among residents.
“We heard gunfire everywhere in the city centre. It was chaos,” said one witness. “Everyone started running in all directions.”
Narkoyo had told AFP on Saturday the rebels were ready to meet with regional African leaders on the crisis in the mineral-rich but deeply poor country, but refused to negotiate with Bozize.
He had warned that if Seleka -- a loose alliance of three rebel movements -- captured Bangui, it would set up a new government.
The city was plunged into darkness on Saturday after rebels sabotaged a hydroelectric power plant in Boali, north of the capital, said residents and an official with the Enerca electricity company.