The president of Central African Republic on Thursday urgently called on France and other foreign powers to help his government fend off rebels who are quickly seizing territory and approaching this capital city, but French officials declined to offer any military assistance.
The developments suggest Central African Republic could be on the brink of another violent change in government, something not new in the history of this resource-rich, yet deeply impoverished country. The current president, Francois Bozize, himself came to power nearly a decade ago in the wake of a rebellion.
Speaking to crowds in Bangui, a city of some 600,000, Bozize pleaded with foreign powers to do what they could. He pointed in particular to France, Central African Republic's former colonial ruler.
About 200 French soldiers are already in the country, providing technical support and helping to train the local army, according to the French defence ministry.
"France has the means to stop (the rebels) but unfortunately they have done nothing for us until now," Bozize said.
French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that France wants to protect its interests in Central African Republic and not Bozize's government. The comments came a day after dozens of protesters, angry about a lack of help against rebel forces, threw rocks at the French Embassy in Bangui and stole a French flag.
Paris is encouraging peace talks between the government and the rebels, with the French Foreign Ministry noting in a statement that negotiations are due to "begin shortly in Libreville (Gabon)." But it was not immediately clear what, if any, dates have been set for those talks.
U.S. officials said Thursday the State Department would close its embassy in the country and ordered its diplomatic team to leave. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to discuss the evacuation publicly.