Rebel fighters captured the southern diamond-mining city of Bangassou in the Central African Republic on Sunday, weeks after they were accused of an attempted coup and ahead of partial results from a tense presidential election.
At least five rebels were killed and two army soldiers wounded in the clashes in the Central African city of Bangassou, which lies on the southern border with Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA said in a statement.
Rebels, whom the government and UN say are backed by ex-president François Bozizé, launched an offensive last month after the constitutional court rejected Bozizé’s candidacy to challenge President Faustin-Archange Touadera in last Sunday’s vote.
Bozizé’s party officially denies he is working with the rebels, but some in the party have suggested they are working together.
The coalition of armed rebel groups, which control two thirds of the coup-prone country, launched an offensive on December 19 aiming to disrupt last weekend’s elections and “march on Bangui”.
They have been kept away from the capital so far by federal soldiers, UN peacekeepers and reinforcements sent from Russia and Rwanda.
‘They are everywhere’
But the rebels attacked Bangassou, about 750 km (470 miles) from Bangui, at dawn on Saturday.
“The rebels control the town,” Rosevel Pierre Louis, head of the UN peacekeeping force MINUSCA’s regional office in the city, told AFP. “They are everywhere.”
Government troops had “abandoned their position and are at our base”, he added.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had transported 15 wounded in the fighting.
Bangassou resident Ismail said Sunday’s attack had been expected locally for around two weeks, and many had fled over the border to DR Congo.
“My children left, I stayed with my wife,” Ismail told AFP as gunshots could be heard over the phone.
Bangassou has previously been the target of brutal assaults.
Trying to ‘suffocate Bangui’
Rebel fighters also attacked Touadera’s hometown of Damara, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Bangui on Saturday, MINUSCA said.
Roland Marchal, a specialist on the Central African Republic at France’s Sciences Po University, said “the rebels thought they could reach Bangui, but they did not expect the arrival of the Russians and Rwandans”.
Conflict analyst Nathalia Dukhan said the rebels have adopted “a long-term strategy by securing the resources to suffocate Bangui”.
The landlocked country is one of the poorest in the world and among the most volatile, suffering coups and wars since independence from France in 1960.
In 2013, it spiralled once more into bloodshed when then-president Bozizé, who had himself seized power in a coup a decade earlier, was ousted by a mainly Muslim coalition called the Seleka.
Five years later,”anti-balaka” militiamen, drawn mainly from Christian communities, attacked the city, slaughtering dozens of Muslim civilians as well as 12 UN peacekeepers.
Country ‘at war’
In a year-end speech on December 31, Touadera said his country “is at war” and that its “survival is threatened. We are going to win this asymmetrical war,” he added.
The capture of Bangassou comes on the eve of partial results being published for the presidential election.
Lack of security meant that voting did not take place in 29 of the country’s 71 sub-prefectures, while thousands were prevented from casting ballots or never received their voting cards.
Touadera’s party claimed victory, while a coalition of opposition groups called for the election to be annulled, claiming ballot stuffing and electoral rigging.
MINUSCA spokesman Vladimir Monteiro accused the opposition of making “false and baseless” allegations.
“Bizarrely, they don’t say anything about former president François Bozizé, an ally of the armed groups who are responsible for the current violence,” he tweeted.
On Sunday the UN mission said in a statement that the main armed groups “the UPC, the MPC, the 3R, the FPRC, the anti-balakas and former president Bozizé are responsible for these attacks and the grave consequences for the civilian population”.
The definitive results from the first round are not expected before January 18, and if there is no outright winner a runoff will be held on February 14.