Bangui - The United States evacuated its embassy in the Central African Republic as the nation's embattled leader appealed for French and US help after rebels seized large swathes of the mineral-rich country.
The United States said on Thursday it had evacuated the embassy and temporarily halted its operations. The State Department said it had not broken off diplomatic ties with the beleaguered government, but warned US citizens not to travel to the chronically unstable country while unrest continues.
The United Nations is also pulling out its staff as rebel fighters close in on the capital Bangui, creating alarm among residents.
“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,” President Francois Bozize told thousands of supporters at a rally 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.”
Former colonial power France however vowed it would not intervene in the country, which has a chequered history of coups and brutal rule.
Organisers said 10,000 government supporters converged on central Bangui which a rally leader described as “our Tahrir Square”.
The protesters blew whistles and waved banners reading “Say No to war” and “No to rebellions”.
The rebel coalition known as Seleka - which means “alliance” in the country's Sango language - has seized four regional capitals, including a diamond mining hub, since its fighters took up arms on December 10.
While it says it has no plans to move on the capital, a statement last week announcing it had suspended its advance was followed within a day by news of further rebel victories.
President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that France would not use its troops stationed in the country to interfere in the conflict.
“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,” Hollande said. “Those days are gone.”
A French foreign ministry spokesman nevertheless condemned “the continued hostility by the rebel groups” and said the crisis should be resolved through dialogue.
On Wednesday, demonstrators angry at France's failure to intervene against the rebel alliance tore down the flag at its embassy in Bangui and broke windows at the building.
One French national in Bangui said Thursday the population feared looting and a breakdown of order.
“It would not take much for things to explode,” she said.
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 colonialism in the 1960s, French troops in western Africa have often come to the help of former colonies.
General Jean-Felix Akaga, commander of the regional central African military force known as FOMAC, said Bangui was “fully secured” by its troops, adding that others will arrive to help reinforce the mission.
Sources at Gabon's defence ministry and Cameroon's military however said they had taken no decision on whether to reinforce their presence in the mission.
The rebels began their push in early December, accusing Bozize and his government of having failed to respect the terms of peace deals signed between 2007-2011.
As the ill-equipped Central African army proved little challenge to the insurgents, Bozize asked for help from neighbouring Chad.
With the government now largely restricted to Bangui, the Chadian troops are the only real obstacle to the rebels, who are now positioned at least 300km away.
The United Nations mission in the country has been working to help the government overcome more than a decade of strife.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has condemned the rebel attacks while Washington expressed “deep concern”.
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.
Central African Republic, with a population of about 4.5 million, has seen frequent coups and mutinies since independence from France in 1960. It ranks 179 out of 187 on the UN development index.