Talks between Central African Republic's government and the rebels who now control much of the country's north are set to get under way no later than Friday, the president of Republic of Congo has announced.
Delegations were expected to travel to Gabon on Monday, though a plane carrying the government officials along with members of the country's political opposition failed to leave Bangui, the capital, as scheduled.
President Denis Sassou Nguesso of Republic of Congo met Monday with the embattled leader of Central African Republic, Francois Bozize, and declined to comment on reports the rebels are still seeking his ouster as a condition of the talks.
"In our capacity as mediator, we can't interpret the declarations of others," he said. "The fact that we hold to is that all the parties have agreed that we are going to negotiations."
The rebel delegation, meanwhile, arrived Monday in Gabon as a spokesman in Paris claimed the fighters could still take the government-fortified city of Damara or Bangui but were holding back out of concern for the 700,000 people who live there.
"If we wanted to take Damara, it would already be done. We have the means to take Damara and also to take Bangui today, but we don't want the capital to suffer attacks," rebel spokesman Eric Massi told The Associated Press in Paris on Monday.
The meetings were set to begin Tuesday, with high-level discussions due to take place later in the week. But the president of Republic of Congo said late Monday that talks will begin no later than Friday, and he urged the rebels to hold their positions at the demarcation line already established.
Meanwhile, a plane carrying members of the government delegation, the country's political opposition and other scheduled participants did not take off as scheduled Monday evening.
The passengers were told the flight was canceled due to a "technical problem" and would fly to Gabon early Tuesday, said Abdoulaye Issene, president of the CPJP, a rebel group that signed a peace agreement with the government who says he is not part of the alliance behind the recent offensive.
This week's scheduled meetings between rebels, the government and the country's political opposition in Libreville, Gabon, come a month after fighters from several armed groups began their rebellion against a government that has wielded little power over its vast and sparsely populated north.
While the rebels — who call themselves Seleka, which means alliance in the local Sango language — have halted their advance toward Bangui, they now hold a dozen cities and towns. The rebellion poses the greatest threat to Bozize's presidency since he himself seized power in 2003.
Bozize already has offered up the possibility of a coalition government, a proposal the rebels have dismissed. A rebel spokesman has said the fighters want Bozize gone, a stipulation that could derail talks altogether.
The government's chief mediator, Willibiro Sako, said the objective of the talks is "to try to look into the problems of our country and find solutions for the peace, security and development of Central African Republic."
"We have to start to enter into dialogue even if at times there were some who did not agree with each other," he said on Monday.
In this nation of 4.4 million, many have little faith the government will be able to reach a lasting agreement with the rebels, especially because multiple peace accords already have been signed over the years with several different groups.
"Even if the rebel leaders reach an agreement with the Bangui government, their people on the ground will not get their piece of cake," said Henry Yenzapa, 42, a history professor at the University of Bangui.
While the rebels had vowed to halt their advance pending the negotiations, residents said two towns were seized over the weekend. Massi, the Paris-based spokesman, accused Bozize of planning to use those towns as jumping off points to spy on Seleka forces.
"We were simply securing our position in taking these two towns and preventing these acts of espionage," said Massi, who identifies himself as Seleka's spokesman, though others within Central African Republic also say they speak for the alliance.
Residents in the capital have been reassured by the presence of regional troops from Gabon, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, and Chad to help stabilize the country. South Africa also has said it is sending 400 soldiers to help support national forces here.
"The military aid provided by the (10-nation) Economic Community of Central African States reassures us that the rebels are not going to continue their advance in the direction of Bangui," said Patrick Bangui, a 27-year-old student.
The shaky rebel alliance, Seleka, is made up of four rebel groups all known by their French acronyms — UFDR, FDPC and CPSK and a faction of CPJP.
The rebels "are going to have zero confidence in many promises that Bozize makes," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Still, she had a scrap of optimism.
"There's a possibility of an agreement — the question is building confidence on both sides, particularly the rebel side, and maintaining it going forward," Cooke said.
Associated Press writers Louis Okamba in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo; Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris; Hippolyte Marboua in Bangui, Central African Republic; and Yves Laurent Goma in Libreville, Gabon, contributed to this report.