BANGUI // African nations began sending reinforcements yesterday to protect the Central African Republic's capital from rebels who control much of the country and are demanding the departure of the president, Francois Bozize.
Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon have each pledged 120 troops to join the 400 Chadian soldiers already deployed by Fomac, the multinational African peacekeeping force, to protect the key town of Damara.
Damara is the last strategic settlement between the capital, Bangui, and the Seleka rebel coalition, which has seized much of the country during a three-week advance to within 160 kilometres of the capital.
Some of the 120 Gabonese troops arrived yesterday morning in Bangui and most of the rest were expected by the end of the day, a Fomac source said.
The 120 troops from Congo-Brazzaville arrived on Monday, while the Cameroonian contingent was expected by the end of this week.
A Gabonese general will command the full force of 760 foreign troops in Damara, the source said.
The regional reinforcements were sent after the rebels vowed on Monday to take the strategic town, about 75km north of the capital.
Fomac was founded in 2008 by the Economic Community of Central African States in an attempt to stabilise the Central African Republic, a chronically unstable country of five million people that has a long history of coups and rebellions.
In a nationally broadcast New Year's address, Mr Bozize thanked his Chadian counterpart, and steadfast ally, President Idriss Deby, for sending troops.
"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."
Mr Bozize also repeated his promise to hold talks with the rebels.
Eric Massi, a rebel spokesman, said on Monday that Mr Bozize could not be trusted. "There is no longer any doubt that the sincerity of the promises made by Francois Bozize is not real," he said.
But as thousands of Bangui residents flocked to churches yesterday, a traditional day of prayer, the capital's Catholic archbishop, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, said some rebels were ready to negotiate with the government.
"I have begun hearing messages of hope from the president and rebels," he said.
The United States said on Monday that it was deeply concerned over the security situation.
"We call on the rebel alliance to cease hostilities and movements towards the capital," said the state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland.