Countries in central Africa began sending reinforcements yesterday to protect the Central African Republic's capital from rebels who control much of the country and are demanding the departure of President Francois Bozize.
Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and Cameroon have each pledged 120 troops to join 400 Chad soldiers already deployed by multinational African peacekeeping force Fomac to protect the key town of Damara, according to a Fomac source.
Damara is the last strategic town between Bangui and the Seleka rebel coalition, which has seized much of the country in a three-week advance to within 160 kilometres of the capital.
A Gabonese general will command the 760 foreign troops in Damara, the source said.
The regional reinforcements were sent after the rebels vowed on Monday to take the strategic town, which is about 75 kilometres north of the capital.
Fomac was launched in 2008 by the Economic Community of Central African States in a bid to stabilise the Central African Republic, a country of five million people with a long history of coups and rebellions.
In a nationally broadcast new year's address, Bozize thanked his Chadian counterpart, steadfast ally President Idriss Deby, for sending in troops.
"Thanks to the Chadian army you are listening to me on the radio and watching me on television," he said. "Otherwise, we would all be in the bush. Bangui would be empty today and embroiled in unrest. Thanks to the Chadian army, thanks to President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad."
Bozize repeated his promise to hold talks with the rebels.
"I am ready for dialogue. I am waiting for the heads of state of the economic community to set the date so we can go there in agreement with Seleka to find the path to exit from this crisis," he said.
Rebel spokesman Eric Massi said Bozize could not be trusted, saying: "There is no longer any doubt that the sincerity of the promises made by Francois Bozize is not real."
The capital's Catholic archbishop, Dieudonne Nzapalainga, said some rebels were ready to negotiate. "I have begun hearing messages of hope from the president and rebels," he said.