President Francois Bozize of the Central African Republic on Tuesday refused to consider his resignation as demanded by rebels who have sent delegates to Gabon for peace talks with the government and the opposition.
“I don't need to negotiate (my departure),” he said in response to a question at a press conference in the Central African capital Bangui on whether he was prepared to accept rebel demands.
“Does the rebellion represent the Centrafrican people? I don't need to negotiate the position of head of state,” Bozize added, calling the rebels “terrorist mercenaries”.
The rebels have seized a string of key towns in the last month and have come within striking distance of Bangui.
The rebel offensive has raised international alarm of a prolonged conflict engulfing the mineral-rich, impoverished country known for coups and mutinies.
Delegations representing the government, opposition and insurgents gathered in the capital of Gabon ahead of the negotiations, which have the blessing of regional powers, the United Nations and the United States.
The government and opposition delegations landed in Libreville on Tuesday, a day after the rebels.
The talks are expected to officially start sometime this week, with sources saying that one-on-one meetings could take place as early as Tuesday.
Foreign ministers from the regional grouping the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC), which will host the Libreville talks, also sat down for a meeting on Tuesday.
In a brief statement the regional bloc evoked “the complexity of the task” ahead of them.
The ministers “regretted that all parties continue to make incendiary statements” and called for an immediate ceasefire agreement.
After their meeting they also called on the government to opt for a regional approach to the crisis, a reference to the South African troop reinforcements sent to Bangui to back Bozize.
The UN's World Food Programme, which has suspended its operations in the country due to the security situation, meanwhile said hundreds of tons of food aid had been stolen from warehouses across the Central African Republic.
The Seleka rebel coalition launched its offensive in the north last month, accusing Bozize of not abiding by earlier peace deals.
Facing little resistance from an ill-trained and ill-equipped army, the rebel forces seized a string of key towns, defying UN Security Council calls to stop, before halting within striking distance of Bangui.
Ahead of the talks, rebel leader Michel Djotodia hinted that the insurgents could be flexible on their demand for Bozize to go.
“I am not the one who will make Bozize step down,” Djotodia told AFP en route to Libreville on Monday. “There is a coalition and also a democratic opposition that is there.
“We will come together a little later and see what should be done,” he said. “We cannot wage war without seeking peace and vice versa.”
Congo Republic President Denis Sassou Nguesso is serving as mediator for the Libreville talks.
Bozize will be present in the city but is not expected to attend the talks, with the government delegation being headed by Higher Education Minister Jean Willybero-Sako.
Willybero-Sako has voiced confidence that concessions that Bozize has offered so far - he has proposed a national unity government and said he will not try to seek an unconstitutional third term - will go a long way toward resolving the conflict.
The concessions “cleared a lot of obstacles”, Willybero-Sako told AFP on Sunday. “That showed a certain willingness to go forward, to take into account everyone's concerns.”
Territorial Administration Minister Josue Binoua has said the government will also propose “army reform, an economic stimulus plan and the implementation of a new electoral code” at the talks.
Bozize, a former army general, came to power in a coup in 2003 and has been voted back into office twice, in 2005 and 2011.
He has been accused of plotting to modify the constitution to allow him to seek a third term in 2016.
Bozize made a quick trip Monday to Brazzaville to meet with mediator Sassou Nguesso.
The Central African leader has claimed the rebel movement was triggered by “elements coming from outside”.
Seleka, an alliance of three rebel movements, launched its assault on December 10 in the north of the Central African Republic, a mineral-rich country of five million people that is notorious for coups.
The insurgents are now in striking distance of the capital Bangui, near Sibut, 160 kilometres to the north.
At first, the rebels were simply calling on the Bangui government to respect the terms of peace accords signed in 2007 and 2011. As their position strengthened, however, they began calling for Bozize to step down.
Ahead of the talks, CEEAC has sent more troops to strengthen FOMAC, its multinational intervention force in the country.
They are deployed as a buffer force at Damara, 75 kilometres north of the capital Bangui.
Northern neighbour Chad has contributed 400 soldiers to protect Damara, while South Africa said on Tuesday that it had so far dispatched 200 troops to the country. - Sapa-AFP