BANGUI – Rebels in the Central African Republic seized control of the capital, Bangui, as the president fled on Sunday, but they promised to respect a January peace deal that provides for elections within three years.
Looters and armed gangs roamed the streets of the city and there were casualties as South African troops clashed with the rebels.
But the fighters, from the Seleka rebel coalition, declared victory after occupying the presidential palace Sunday.
Seleka coalition leader Michel Djotodia told Radio France Internationale (RFI) they would respect the terms of a peace deal signed with the regime of Francois Bozize, the president they had just overthrown.
Opposition figure Nicolas Tiangaye, appointed prime minister of a national unity government formed as part of that deal, would remain in his post.
They would also hold free and fair elections within three years, as set out in the deal, he added. And he had not ruled out keeping some ministers from Bozize’s clan in the government.
Rebel fighters resumed hostilities last week in the former French colony after they accused Bozize of reneging on the terms of the latest peace deal.
The rebel fighters moved into the capital Saturday and clashed with South African troops stationed there Sunday. South African Brig. Gen. Xolani Mabanga told the SAPA news agency there had been casualties, but he was unable to provide any numbers.
The South Africans had been posted in Bangui to support the poorly trained, ill-equipped government troops.
Armed men roamed the city Sunday, looting homes, shops, restaurants and offices — including the premises of the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.
The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that injured people were flooding hospitals and medical centers in Bangui and requested secure access to the capital.
The whereabouts of Bozize, who himself seized power in a coup in 2003, remained a mystery. One well-placed source said he had left the country in a helicopter, but did not disclose his destination. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed only that he had fled Bangui.
Earlier Sunday, French President Francois Hollande had called on all parties in the conflict to form a government in accordance with the January peace deal. He also called on “the armed groups to respect the population.”
That call was echoed by the United States, which also expressed deep concern over “widespread reports of human rights abuses” by both sides.
As the rebel forces arrived on the outskirts of Bangui, France sent 300 troops to back up the 250 soldiers already there to protect 1,250 French nationals.
Col. Djouma Narkoyo, a rebel commander on the ground, said Saturday the rebels were ready to meet with regional African leaders on the crisis — but they would not negotiate with Bozize.
Bozize’s legacy after a decade in power is a country riddled with corruption and mired in poverty, despite abundant natural resources that include uranium, gold, oil and diamonds.