Rebels take key Central African city: witnesses

Sunday December 23 2012

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BANGUI, Central African Republic

Rebels in the Central African Republic on Sunday seized the key south-central city of Bambari after battling government forces, witnesses said, despite saying last week they would suspend their offensive.

"Following an hour of fighting, the city fell into the hands of the rebels who now control the city centre," a witness told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Bambari Bishop Edouard Mathos confirmed the report.

The army "was headed towards Bria (under rebel control since Tuesday) but at five kilometres (three miles) north of Bambari the rebels attacked," the witness said.

Mathos said soldiers were withdrawing to Grimari, a town some 40 kilometres from Bambari.

The sound of gunfire could be clearly heard in the background while Mathos was talking to AFP by telephone.

Neither the government nor the army was immediately available to confirm the report.

Bambari, one of the impoverished landlocked country's biggest cities, had been an army stronghold.

The rebel coalition known as Seleka took up arms earlier this month and has seized several towns in the north to demand "respect" of different peace deals signed between 2007 and 2011 that they accuse President Francois Bozize of failing to implement.

On Friday a rebel spokesman said Seleka had suspended fighting to give planned talks with the government a chance.