Bangui, Central African Republic • Hundreds of rebels penetrated the capital of Central African Republic on Saturday, posing the gravest threat to President Francois Bozize’s government in a decade.
The rebels, who signed a peace agreement in January that was to allow Bozize to stay in power until 2016, have threatened to overthrow the country’s leader unless he meets their demands.
The rebels come from several different armed groups that have long challenged the government. They are now accusing Bozize of failing to abide by the terms of the latest deal signed two months ago, with the help of mediators from neighboring countries.
Fighters rapidly seized a dozen towns in December and January but never entered the capital of Bangui before agreeing to negotiations.
Guy Moussa, who lives in the PK12 neighborhood on the north side of the city, told The Associated Press that hundreds of rebels had entered the city around 6 p.m.
Panicked residents cowered in their homes, many shrouded in darkness after rebels took out a power station supplying parts of Bangui.
Earlier in the afternoon, non-essential United Nations personnel taking a bus to the airport were stopped by a group of angry youths.
“No one leaves this country. You will stay here. If we die, we all die together,” the youths shouted, according to U.N. employee Debonheur Deotar.
The unrest is the latest threat to the stability of Central African Republic, a desperately poor nation of 4.5 million that has long been wracked by rebellions and power grabs. The president himself took power in 2003 following a rebellion, and his tenure has been marked by conflict with myriad armed groups.
Bozize’s whereabouts late Saturday were not immediately known. On Friday, state radio announced that he had returned from South Africa where he was meeting with that country’s president, Jacob Zuma.
South Africa has sent troops and equipment to support Central African Republic forces.
The rebels insist the foreign troops leave, and, as part of their demands, they want their own fighters integrated into the national army.
On Friday, the rebels seized Damara, which had been the boundary line drawn up by regional forces before the January peace accord was signed.
The move marked a serious escalation by the rebels, who went on to take the town of Bossembele early Saturday, said military spokesman Lt. Evrard Tekremoyen.
The insurgents then drove to the neighboring town of Boali and took control of three power plants that serve the town and the capital, residents said.
The rebels also cut off the electrical grid, plunging some of Bangui into darkness, Elisabeth Kofio, the director of Central African Republic Energy, said on the radio.
Earlier in the week, Bozize had offered to release some political prisoners, but the rebels said the gestures were too little, too late.