BANGUI - Central African Republic's army chiefs pledged allegiance to the country's self-proclaimed president Michel Djotodia on Thursday as the ex-rebel leader consolidated control four days after his fighters seized the capital.
Djotodia seized control of the resource-rich nation after thousands of his rebel fighters swept into the riverside capital Bangui on Sunday, ousting President Francois Bozize and triggering days of looting.
“The former FACA (national army) officers wanted to meet with President Djotodia to tell him they recognise him as the new president,” said Maurice Ntossui, a commander of the African peacekeeping force in the country who attended the meeting.
“All the former chiefs of police, gendarmes, the head of the armed forces and other senior officers came to the meeting. This was a form of surrender,” he said.
At least 13 South African soldiers, among hundreds deployed to reinforce Bozize's army, were killed in the rebel onslaught in the worst military setback for Pretoria since the end of apartheid in 1994 and one which put a dent in any ambitions it has of becoming a continental superpower.
South African media and a senior Ugandan officer said South African soldiers gathered in Uganda on Thursday for a “new mission” to Central African Republic.
“They were humiliated and they want to avenge,” said the Uganda officer, who asked not to be named. South Africa's armed forces and defence ministry declined to comment.
A U.N. official in Democratic Republic of Congo said about 70 South African troops had been dispatched to the Congolese town of Gemena, 180 km (112 miles) from Bangui, but it was not clear what they were there to do.
A spokesman for the Seleka rebels said their leaders were struggling to restore calm in Bangui, a city of 600,000, where armed civilians were pillaging shops and homes. Seleka had asked police and other civil servants to return to work, he said.
“Seleka are fighters and they can't do police work,” spokesman Colonel Youssouf Ben Moussa said. “We are trying to get our forces into their barracks ... It is true that there is still some looting but it is not our men,” he said.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said 173 people had been taken to the town's one functioning hospital, most with gunshot wounds. Dozens were waiting to be operated on but the lack of running water and erratic power was impeding treatment.
There was sporadic shooting in parts of the city but many shops and markets were reopening and traffic was returning as security slowly improved.
“Hunger can kill as well as bullets,” said Marie Flore Boka, a 43-year-old civil servant on the streets buying food.
The overthrow of Bozize, who seized power in a coup in 2003, was the latest of many rebellions since the poor, landlocked country won independence from France in 1960. It was condemned by the United Nations and the African Union, which imposed sanctions and a travel ban on several Seleka leaders.
Seleka said they launched their offensive - in which they fought their way from the far north of the country to the presidential palace in four days - after the collapse of a power-sharing deal signed in January.
Witnesses, including among the scores of French expatriates being evacuated from Bangui airport on Thursday, said Seleka fighters went on a looting spree after taking the capital.
“They came into my hotel room and drew their weapons on me, demanding my money,” said Yves De Moor, a French business owner. “One of them put a bullet into the chamber, which was a terrifying moment, and I gave them everything.” - Reuters