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Rebels seize city in CAR weeks after alleged coup attempt

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Egyptian commandos of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) patrol on the outskirts of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, on December 25, 2020. (Photo by AFP)

Rebel forces have seized the city of Bangassou in the Central African Republic, following a fierce gun battle.

Rosevel Pierre Louis, the city’s head of operations for the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, or MINUSCA, said on Sunday that government troops had "abandoned their position” and are at the UN mission’s base.  

"The rebels control the town”, he said. "They are everywhere”.

Earlier in the day, Louis said the city, which is located about 750 kilometers (470 miles) from the capital Bangui, has been under attack since 5.25 a.m. (0425 GMT and that there has been clashes everywhere.

Bangassou's Bishop Aguirre also confirmed the clashes, saying "there are gunshots and detonations around the city center".

In a post on Twitter, MINUSCA also said UN peacekeepers had been protecting the city and the bodies of five rebels had been found.

The UN mission further said the rebels who attacked the city were allied to former president Francois Bozize.

Sunday’s attack came a day after armed groups waged a dawn assault on the town of Damara, around 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of Bangui.

MINUSCA spokesman Vladimir Monteiro said there had been an "incursion" in Damara on Saturday, but the CAR troops had "intervened and the armed groups fled". He also said the UN mission had sent patrols to the town.

MINUSCA did not give an exact number of casualties in either attack.

Sunday’s offensive came weeks after an alleged military coup plot by the rebels and days before expected results from the country’s key presidential and legislative elections which were held on December 27.   

Armed groups hostile to President Faustin Archange Touadera, who is seeking a second term, have stepped up attacks since the constitutional court rejected earlier in the month several candidacies, including the incumbent’s main rival, Bozize.

On December 19, Touadera’s government alleged that Bozize was seeking to mount a coup after three of the powerful armed groups that control most of the CAR’s territory began advancing toward the capital along main roads.

Bozize had denied the accusation.

The armed groups in the CAR had accused Touadera's government of seeking to fix the elections and warned of a violent response.

Touadera is the favorite to win last weekend's election.

Bozize, back after years in exile, has been barred from running in the polls by the coup-prone country’s top court. The country had issued an international arrest warrant against him on charges including murder, arbitrary arrest, and torture.

The Coalition of the Democratic Opposition (COD-2020), which was until recently led by Bozize, had previously demanded the postponement of the vote “until the re-establishment of peace and security.”

The definitive results are not expected before January 18. The elections will go to a second round on February 14 if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

The Central African Republic spiraled into conflict in 2013, when the then-president, Francoise Bozize, was ousted by the Seleka, a rebel coalition.

The coup triggered a bloodbath between the Seleka and so-called "anti-Balaka" self-defense forces, mainly Christian and animist.

France intervened militarily in its former colony and after a transitional period, elections were staged in 2016 and won by Touadera.

Inter-communal fighting has receded in intensity in past years, but militia groups hold sway over two-thirds of the country, often fighting over resources.

The UN has more than 12,800 peacekeepers in the country.

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