BANGUI (Reuters) - The president of Central African Republic was sheltering in neighbouring Cameroon on Sunday after armed men seized key buildings in his capital Bangui and stopped him returning home from a summit in Niger.
Gunfire crackled in Bangui on Saturday afternoon as fighters in pickup trucks attacked the airport and President Ange-Felix Patasse's residence, quickly seizing control of strategic points and pushing back an African peacekeeping force.
There have been a series of attempts to topple Patasse in the past two years by rebels loyal to former army chief Francois Bozize, and witnesses who saw the attackers said they believed they were Bozize's fighters.
Patasse was flying home from a regional summit in Niger and the attack forced his plane to change course to neighbouring Cameroon. He arrived with his wife and entourage at a hotel in the capital Yaounde late on Saturday night.
Patasse has beaten back previous attacks with the help of Libyan troops and Congolese rebels. The Libyans have been replaced by a central African peacekeeping force of some 350 troops from nearby countries.
"The rebels have taken positions at the airport and the central African peacekeeping force has withdrawn," said a Bangui resident who lives near the airport.
Witnesses said the attackers, dressed in military fatigues and some with white head scarves, had taken control of the airport and were stationed near Patasse's house.
A resident who sneaked through a military camp to avoid rebels on the street said soldiers from the regular armed forces were sitting quietly at home and had not confronted them.
Government officials in Bangui were not immediately available for comment and Patasse, shephered by tight security, was tight-lipped when he arrived at the Yaounde Hilton.
TENSION WITH NORTHERN NEIGHBOUR
Central African Republic has accused neighbouring Chad of backing the rebels loyal to Bozize, who fled there after being accused of plotting to oust Patasse. Heavy fighting shook the capital before Bozize made his escape.
Patasse met Chad's President Idriss Deby on the sidelines of 18-member Community of the Sahel and Saharan States (Comessa) summit in Niger on Saturday morning and the two said they wanted a peaceful end to the crisis.
Central African Republic's history since independence from colonial ruler France has been marked by brutal dictatorship, revolts and coup attempts.
In February, Congolese rebels loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba drove Bozize's forces north towards the border with Chad, but large swathes of the landlocked, diamond-rich nation are back in the hands of fighters loyal to the former army general.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting and sought refuge in southern Chad, worrying humanitarian agencies which fear people will go hungry if the conflict persists.
The United Nations refugee agency said on Friday that 4,000 refugees spilled over the border into Chad last week, taking the total number of civilians from both countries to flee to 30,000 since mid-February.
Central African Republic is dirt poor. The former French colony has 3.5 million people, earning an average of $290 a year. Its main exports are diamonds, timber, coffee and cotton.
Bangui come bottom in a quality of life survey ranking 215 cities throughout the world published earlier this month.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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