Bangui - Central African Republic's embattled President Francois Bozize appealed on Thursday for French and US help to halt a rebel advance as regional troops were deployed to secure the capital in an escalating crisis in one of the world's poorest countries.
The United Nations is pulling its staff out and the United States has warned its citizens to leave in the face of the deteriorating security situation as rebel fighters close in on Bangui.
But former colonial power France, whose embassy in Bangui came under attack on Wednesday by demonstrators angry at the lack of French help, vowed it would not intervene in the conflict in a country with a chequered history of coups and brutal rule.
"We ask our French cousins and the United States of America, the great powers, to help us to push back the rebels... to allow for dialogue in Libreville to resolve the current crisis," Bozize said in a public speech in Bangui.
"There is no question of allowing them to kill Central Africans, of letting them destroy houses and pillage, and holding a knife to our throats to demand dialogue," said Bozize, who himself seized power in a coup in 2003.
"It is a plot against the Central African Republic, a plot against its people."
The rebel coalition known as Seleka has seized a string of towns in its sweep across the mineral-rich but deeply poor country since its fighters took up arms on December 10.
More regional troops were being sent in to help secure Bangui but French President Francois Hollande said France would not use its troops stationed in the country to interfere in the conflict which is escalating despite both sides apparently agreeing to hold talks in Libreville.
"If we are present, it is not to protect a regime, it is to protect our nationals and our interests, and in no way to intervene in the internal affairs of a country, in this case Central Africa," Hollande said.
"Those days are gone."
France has around 250 soldiers based at Bangui airport providing technical support to a peacekeeping mission run by the central African bloc ECCAS.
Since the end of colonisation in the 1960s, French troops in western Africa have often come to the help of former colonies whose regimes were on the verge of being toppled.
"Bangui is fully secured by the troops" of the FOMAC central African military force, its commander General Jean-Felix Akaga said on national radio. "Others will arrive to help reinforce this mission of securing Bangui."
The rebels began their push in early December, charging that Bozize and his government have not stuck to the terms of peace deals signed between 2007-2011.
As the ill-equipped and under-paid Central African army proved little challenge to the insurgents, Bozize asked for help from neighbouring Chad, which had helped him during rebellions in the north in 2010.
With the government now largely restricted to Bangui, the Chadian troops are the only real obstacle to the rebels now sitting about 300 (200 miles) away.
The United Nations on Wednesday ordered more than 200 non-essential staff and families of other workers to leave the Central African Republic because of the rebel offensive.
Rebel coalition troops have stopped short of the capital, but UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said "their contradictory messages and their continued military offensive seem to indicate that they might be intent on taking Bangui".
The United Nations has a major political mission in the Central African Republic seeking to help the government overcome more than a decade of strife. More than 200 people are involved in the withdrawal order, a UN official said.
UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned armed attacks on several towns by the rebels.
Washington expressed "deep concern" and warned all Americans to leave the country "until the security situation improved".
Nassour Ouaidou, the head of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), told AFP in Libreville that the body was trying to broker a truce.
The landlocked Central African Republic has a population of under five million. It ranks 179 out of 187 countries on the UN's latest development index and has seen frequent coups and mutinies. - AFP