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Central African Republic preps for peace talks as regional troops arrive

Amid a weak truce, CAR officials and rebels are preparing to negotiate in Gabon as South African, Chadian forces arrive to secure the Central African Republic's capital. What are the prospects for peace?

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Years of rebellion and lawlessness

More fundamentally, however, is that whatever the outcome of peace talks, they can do little to deal with the underlying problems in one of Africa's most impoverished and dysfunctional states.

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Mineral-rich in theory but cripplingly poor in reality, CAR has been wracked by years of rebellions and lawlessness. Almost two-thirds of its 4.5 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Seen against that background, the deployment of hundreds of troops from South Africa, Chad and several of CAR's neighbors might be just a temporary solution.

While they will undoubtedly prove more robust than CAR's feeble national Army of only a few thousand troops, they can do little more than deter rebels from crossing a red line some 45 miles from Bangui, and may embolden Bozize to try a military counterstrike.

In the statement announcing the deployment, South Africa, which already had troops training the CAR Army, said the new troops would stay till 2018 and were there “in fulfilment of an international obligation of the Republic of South Africa towards the CAR.”

That move -- and the news of the previously secret agreement -- came as a surprise to many, analysts say, and has riled the rebels.

“Suspicion is rife about the South African involvement because people struggle to see what kind of interests South Africa has to defend in such a country whose governance and democratic record is so low,” Mr. Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group says. “Given the fact that the South African military deployment is not part of a peacekeeping force but is done on the basis of a security bilateral agreement, this is interpreted as a clear show of force in favor of President Bozize by the rebels.”

Chad stepping up its involvement as part of regional force already on the ground, however, is no surprise. Troops from CAR's northern neighbor backed Bozize's 2003 takeover and Chadian rebels have used the country's sparsely populated hinterland as as a base.

Will France get involved?

One country that seems set not to get involved this time round is former colonial master France.

Since nominally handing over the reins in 1960, France has repeatedly weighed in alternately to help prop up or oust a succession of Central African regimes, and currently has around 500 soldiers stationed in Bangui.

But with attention currently focused on the much more ominous conflict Mali, French President François Hollande has made it clear that those troops are just there to protect French nationals.

While a quiet Christmas news period has seen a brief spotlight on one of Africa's most neglected conflicts, it seems likely that a stalemate rather than a solution will become the status quo.

“At the end of the day, the deployment of these foreign troops demonstrates that the African governments do not want a new coup in Bangui and a change of power by force at this stage,” Vircoulon says. “They are providing a security safety net to a regime that cannot defend itself anymore, as the fast offensive of the rebels showed.”

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