US embassy evacuated as rebels surge in Central African Republic

The turmoil in the landlocked African nation has prompted calls for France to intervene militarily in its former colony. 'Those days are gone,' said French President François Hollande.

Supporters of Central African Republic President Francois Bozize and anti-rebel protesters listen to an appeal for help by Bozize, in Bangui December 27. Bozize appealed for France and the United States to help push back rebels threatening his government and the capital, but Paris said its troops were only ready to protect French nationals.

Rebels are closing in on the capital of the impoverished Central African Republic, threatening to topple the weak government and push yet another African nation into civil war, failure, or outright collapse, The Associated Press and other news outlets are reporting. 

The former French colony joins a string of countries stretching from Mali and the Ivory Coast to Congo and South Sudan where war and turmoil have created waves of refugees and power vacuums for warlords or criminal groups to exploit. Several of the countries are former French colonies, raising questions for Paris about whether to get involved in the conflicts. 

The United States evacuated its embassy in the CAR capital Bangui overnight, sending the ambassador and around 40 other staff to Kenya due to the deteriorating security situation, the AP reports. The United Nations has also ordered around 200 non-essential staff to depart, as well. 

A day earlier, President François Bozizé, who seized power in a 2003 coup, urged the US and France to intervene, according to Radio French International. Hundreds of demonstrators pelted the French Embassy with stones earlier this week, demanding that France intervene militarily to halt the rebel advance, Reuters reports.  

“We ask our French cousins and the United States of America, the great powers, to help us to push back the rebels … to allow for dialogue in Libreville [Gabon] to resolve the current crisis,” President Bozize said.

“There is no question of allowing them to kill Central Africans, of letting them destroy houses and pillage, and holding a knife to our throats to demand dialogue,” he said.

The rebel fighters are a coalition known as Seleka that have captured four regional cities and towns, including a diamond mining hub, since taking up arms on Dec. 10. They accuse Bozizé of not upholding peace deals meant to end several regional uprisings.

The conflict has posed yet another challenge to French foreign policy, particularly in its former African colonies. There are around 250 French military advisers in the CAR, but French President François Hollande said yesterday that troops wouldn’t get involved. "If we are present, it is not to protect a regime, it is to protect our nationals and our interests, and in no way to intervene in the internal affairs of a country," President Hollande was quoted by AFP as saying. "Those days are gone."

That’s a contrast from Hollande’s predecessor, Nicholas Sarkozy, who took a more aggressive approach, sending French military troops, for example, to help oust Ivory Coast leader Laurent Gbagbo amid fighting that followed a disputed presidential election. French jets played a major role in the air campaign in Libya that ultimately led to Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s defeat.

Landlocked and poor despite substantial mineral wealth, including uranium, the CAR has been unstable for most of its 52 years of independence. It is also sandwiched between countries that have been roiled by war for years, often fueled by access to mineral and natural resources. The Democratic Republic of Congo has seen on- and off-again war involving as many as nine other countries and other armed groups for nearly two decades. The fighting in South Sudan predates its independence in 2011, a struggle involving oil resources, among other things.

Also fueling the turmoil is Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army, who is believed to be hiding in southeastern Central African Republic. Mr. Kony, indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in the brutal fight in Uganda, is the focus of a global manhunt. US military advisers have been dispatched to Uganda to help search for him.

Further west, France has been resisting calls for greater involvement in civil war in Mali, where Islamist rebels have seized the northern part of the former colony, and imposed harsh sharia law. That has raised fears of a power vacuum, allowing Al-Qaeda-linked terror groups a base for operations.

The United Nations Security Council last week approved a resolution that authorizes a US- and European-backed African force to rebuild Mali's military and to prepare it for a possible offensive against the separatists and extremists. The French-sponsored resolution also authorized military intervention by a 3,300-strong force of soldiers from the Economic Community of West African States, under the training and command of Gen. Francois Lecointre, who has experience in Africa and Bosnia.

[Editor's note: The headline on the original version of this story had a typo]

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