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CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Rebel leader seizes power, suspends constitution

Bangui, 17 March 2003 (IRIN) - Rebel leader Francois Bozize - whose forces seized power on Saturday in the Central African Republic - has declared himself head of state, suspended the constitution and announced plans for a National Transitional Council to run the country.

"I will receive as soon as possible all the political parties and stakeholders so that we can agree on a consensual transitional programme," Bozize announced in a broadcast to the nation on Sunday.

He said former heads of state would be honorary members of the council. He said his administration's priorities would be to pursue talks with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on a "post-conflict" accord, restructure and reunify the national army and the administration; seize illegal weapons; reform financial services; intensify the campaign against HIV/AIDS; and prepare free and fair elections. He gave no timeframe for his rule.

Bozize imposed a 10-day curfew from 7:00 pm to 6:00 am; warned the public against looting; and asked people to go about their normal business beginning Monday. He decreed that secretaries-general and directors in all ministries remain at their post until appointment of new ministers.

Bozize, the country's former army chief of staff, first launched an unsuccessful bid to seize power on 25 October 2002 when he invaded the capital, Bangui. Libyan troops, then guarding President Ange-Felix Patasse, flushed out Bozize's men forcing their retreat north across the border into Chad. The Libyans left the country earlier this year, and were replaced by some 300 troops of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States, CEMAC.

Bozize's entry into Bangui

Bozize's forces entered Bangui on Saturday unopposed, capturing the presidential palace and the Bangui M'poko Airport, both of which were guarded by CEMAC troops. The CEMAC troops offered no resistance and withdrew from both sites to their barracks near the airport; abandoning the presidential palace to looters.

"Our mission was not to defend the [presidential] residence but the head of the state, and I think that we have not failed in our mission," Colonel Basile Sillou, the CEMAC force's chief of staff, told IRIN on Sunday.

However, he said his men would defend themselves if attacked. He added that the force had suspended its patrols in Bangui the capital, but would resume them "very soon". He said that the force commander was awaiting orders from CEMAC before taking further action.

Fighters of Jean-Pierre Bemba's Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC), who have been backing Patasse since October 2002, fled across the Oubangui River into northwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo, taunted by a jeering and hostile public. The MLC had been blamed for widespread looting and rape when they helped Patasse's army put down the October rebellion.

In contrast, the public welcomed Bozize's men on Saturday, some spreading out their clothes on the ground for the rebel vehicles to pass. The speed of Bozize's seizure of the capital surprised many. Until recently, the government troops had recaptured some towns in rebel hands - and seemed to have the upper hand. Last week Patasse announced a relaxation in the offensive against the rebels in an effort to convene a national political dialogue facilitated in Rome by the Italian Roman Catholic community, Sante Egidio.

Patasse was overthrown as he returned form the fifth summit of the Community of Sahel and Saharan (CEN-SAD) in Niamey, Niger's capital. Rebels shot at his plane as it attempted to land at M'Poko Airport, forcing the pilot to divert to Yaounde, capital of neighbouring Cameroon.

All of Patasse's officials fled their homes, which were looted by angry mobs. They took away household goods, cars. From the home of the commander of the presidential guards battalion, looters stole Russian-made Kalashnikov automatic assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Most of the youth involved in the looting of the firearms joined Bozize's men as they drove around the city aboard stolen UN, diplomatic and private cars.

The public largely ignored a call on Sunday by Bozize's spokesman, Capt Parfait Mbaye, Bozize's spokesman, to stop looting. Mbaye also ordered all government soldiers and gendarmes to return to barracks or be treated as deserters.

Humanitarian situation

Warehouses belonging to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), private homes, and offices of the Brethren Church Mission and the Faculte de Theologie Evangelique de Bangui (the Theological Evangelical faculty of Bangui) were looted. At least 1,000 mt of food was also taken from the World Food Programme's warehouses in Bangui, the agency's representative, David Bulman, told IRIN on Monday.

He said WFP was trying to retrieve the food for distribution among the most vulnerable people. He added that once security had been restored WFP would also bring from Cameroon 1,700 mt of food.

So far, there has not been any massive displacement of Bangui residents. Casualty figures are unknown although corpses litter the city centre and the road by the looted building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Most of the dead and wounded have been taken to the military hospital, which was not staffed on Sunday.

Patasse, 65, had held power since 1993 when he won the first democratic elections, and was re-elected in 1999. During his 10 years in office, he faced three military mutinies and four coup attempts. His predecessor, Andre Kolingba, organised one coup on 28 May 2001. The others were by Bozize on 2 November 2001, 25 October 2002 and Saturday's successful bid.

Diplomatic reaction

Condemnation of the coup has been swift. The African Union, the continent's foremost political body, "strongly condemned" Bozize's action. It’s chairman, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, said the coup undermined the continent's effort aimed at sustained development. In a statement issued on Monday, The South African Department of Foreign Affairs said, "The African continent will never countenance any unconstitutional transfer of power whatever the quarter."

Niger President Mamadou Tandia, in his capacity as chairman of the CEN-SAD, called on the international community to take "concerted action" to immediately re-establish constitutional rule.

Theme (s): Conflict,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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