Facing an insurgency by a new rebel coalition, the president of Central African Republic consolidated military power under his control Thursday after dismissing his own son as acting defense minister along with his army chief of staff.
President Francois Bozize said in a decree read on state radio late Wednesday that he was taking over the position held by his son, Jean Francis Bozize as neighboring countries sent troops to help.
Hundreds of soldiers from Chad, Republic of Congo, Gabon and Cameroon have been in arriving this week in this desperately poor, landlocked country where rebels have seized 10 towns in a month's time.
Rebel spokesman Col. Djouma Narkoyo reiterated Thursday that they were holding their position at the transportation hub of Sibut pending negotiations in Gabon. They have apparently made no further advance toward the capital since taking the town on Dec. 29.
"Our position today is that we respect the decision of the Economic Community of Central African States," he said by satellite phone. "That's why we are staying in Sibut and are not advancing."
In New York, France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said there will be a meeting in Libreville, Gabon on Jan. 8 to promote a political solution to the crisis, mediated by President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo.
"The goal is to have a political agreement in Libreville, a national unity government ... and eventually a peaceful settlement," he told reporters after a closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council Thursday on the latest developments in the Central African Republic by U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman.
Araud said the African Union and regional groups are in the lead and have been very active, and the Security Council is supporting them and will likely issue a press statement Friday. He said France planned to circulate the text to the 14 other council members on Thursday evening.
"They have stopped the rebels, and they have ideas about a national unity government," Araud said of the AU and regional groups. "So everything will be discussed in the meeting in Libreville on the 8th, and after the meeting in Libreville we'll see whether the U.N. has to do something."
Residents in the capital of Bangui said Bozize's decision to fire his own son was not surprising given the recent military losses. But some noted Bozize may be making his moves too late.
"It's coming too late because the security of our country is already in the hands of rebels," said Jean Nestor Kongbu as he watched fishermen cast their nets in the Obangui River that separates Central African Republic from Congo. ... They say they won't advance, but the government could provoke the rebels or the rebels could provoke the government. They need to negotiate for the Central African people."
The sudden military reorganization also suggests that Bozize's regime may be weakening, said Thierry Vircoulon, the project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group.
"If he is dismissing his own son, it means he is getting more and more isolated," Vircoulon said.
Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said people see Bozize "as a losing ticket right now."
"People are losing confidence in him and he has every reason to be a bit paranoid right now watching the disintegration of the country," she said.
The United Nations called for talks between the government and rebels and the Security Council scheduled closed consultations on the Central African Republic on Thursday afternoon.
The rebels have indicated they will participate in upcoming talks in Gabon but are also insisting that Bozize go. The president says he will not leave before finishing his term in 2016.
Bozize himself took power in 2003 following a rebellion with the help of Chadian forces. He later went on to win elections in 2005 and 2011, though the opposition and international observers have called the votes deeply flawed.
The rebels behind the latest challenge to Bozize's rule are made up of four separate groups all known by their French acronyms — UFDR, CPJP, FDPC and CPSK. They are collectively known as Seleka, which means alliance in the local Sango language, but have previously fought one another. In September 2011, fighting between the CPJP and the UFDR left at least 50 people dead in the town of Bria and more than 700 homes destroyed.
Just 70 miles (112 kilometers) to the south of Sibut, government and regional forces are fortifying the town of Damara, where truckloads of Chadian troops patrol with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons.
Gen. Jean Felix Akaga, who heads the regional force known as FOMAC, says a push on Damara, 45 miles (75 kilometers) north of the capital, would be "a declaration of war" on the 10 Central African states.
"For us, Damara is the red line that the rebels cannot cross," Akaga said Wednesday. "If they attack Damara, we will attack."
Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations