UPDATE 1-Rebels extend reach in CAR ahead of peace talks

Paul-Marin Ngoupana
Reuters Middle East

* Rebels occupy Sibut after soldiers withdraw toward capital

* Regional bloc agrees to increase troops in CAR

* Rebels say won't attack Bangui pending peace talks

(Updates throughout)

BANGUI, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African

Republic took control of a strategic town north of the capital

on Saturday after soldiers defending it withdrew, ramping up

tensions ahead of planned peace talks.

The three-week-old uprising by SELEKA rebels poses the

biggest threat yet to President Francois Bozize's near ten-year

rule over the former French colony - a nation plagued by poverty

and turmoil despite its rich natural resources.

Regional neighbours agreed on Friday to send more troops to

shore up CAR's army after a string of defeats and after French

President Francois Hollande rejected a plea for military help

made by embattled President Francois Bozize.

Insurgents riding motorbikes and packed into pickup trucks

streamed into Sibut, a regional capital on a major crossroads

about 190 kilometres (115 miles) north of the capital Bangui,

unopposed early on Saturday, said witnesses.

"(They) took positions at strategic points in the town,

firing their guns," said Yvon Bema, a 27-year-old Sibut resident

who fled to Bangui. "The national army and the Chadians had left

on Friday in the direction of Bangui," he added.

The land around Sibut had been seen as a buffer between the

rebels and Bangui. Government troops there were backed by

soldiers from neighbouring Chad.

CAR's minister of territorial administration, Josue Binoua,

confirmed on local radio that Sibut was occupied by rebels after

troops withdrew to Damara, about 75 km north of Bangui, where

clashes had been reported on Friday.

The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) -

which already has more than 500 peacekeepers in CAR - announced

overnight a decision to send in more troops ahead of talks

planned between the rebels and the government in early January.

"We are thinking of a way to deploy this mission as quickly

as possible," Gabon Foreign Minister Emmanuel Issoze Ngondet

told reporters after a meeting with his regional counterparts in

Gabon's capital Libreville. He did not say how many soldiers

would be deployed.

The ECCAS soldiers, mostly from Chad, are part of the

MICOPAX (Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central

African Republic) peacekeeping force.

The SELEKA rebels have threatened to overthrow Bozize if he

does not honour a previous peace deal offering former fighters

pay and jobs. They have said they will stay out of Bangui for

now to give peace talks a chance.

Officials in Bangui said on Friday rebels had agreed to send

delegates to Libreville in early January, though a rebel

spokesman was not immediately available to comment.

Bozize came to power in a rebellion in 2003 and has since

won two elections. France launched air strikes against rebels

challenging him in 2006, but Paris has said it will not

intervene militarily in the current conflict.

The United States said on Thursday it had closed its embassy

in Bangui and evacuated its staff.

Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in

the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local forces

try to track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group

which has killed thousands of civilians across four African


About 1,200 French nationals live in CAR, mostly working for

mining firms and aid groups in the capital. French defence

ministry sources said Paris had sent in 150 troops to Bangui

late on Friday to bolster an existing 250-strong deployment

safeguarding French citizens.

French nuclear energy group Areva mines the

Bakouma uranium deposit in CAR's south - France's biggest

commercial interest in its former colony.

(Additional reporting by Phal Gualbert Mezui Ndong in

Libreville and Catherin Bremer in Paris; Writing by Richard

Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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