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Central Africa peace talks begin in Gabon
by Staff Writers
Libreville (AFP) Jan 09, 2013

Three-way peace talks between the Central African government, a rebel coalition that conquered much of the country over the past month and the political opposition began Wednesday in Gabon, an AFP correspondent reported.

The peace talks, brokered by regional bloc ECCAS, are due to focus on renegotiating peace agreements signed by Bangui between 2007 and 2011 which rebels say have been violated, prompting them to unite and launch a major offensive last month.

"I am asking all parties involved, especially the opposition and armed groups, to abide by the decision heads of state made in N'Djamena and focus their talks on the 2008 Libreville accords," Congolese Foreign Minister Basile Ikouebe, who is chairing the talks, said at the opening of the session.

The delegation representing the Seleka rebel coalition was more than two hours late at the talks, which are taking place in the Gabonese capital Libreville with the backing of regional powers, the United Nations and the United States.

The group -- an umbrella for several rebel factions that had reached deals with the government in recent years -- launched an offensive on December and soon took over most of the Central African Republic, an impoverished country of five million roughly the size of France.

Rebels moved southward towards Bangui but stopped around 100 miles from the capital after regional powers sent troops to bolster Central African President Francois Bozize's embattled army.

The rebels have demanded that Bozize step down but the president, who took power in a 2003 coup, has warned he would not leave his job and Ikouebe urged his foes to "stick to African Union rules on regime change."

ECCAS foreign ministers warned of "the complexity of the task" ahead following a meeting on Tuesday, and "regretted that all parties continue to make incendiary statements."

The president -- who is not expected to attend the talks in person -- lashed out at the rebels on Tuesday night, rejecting their demand for him to stand down and branding them "terrorist mercenaries".

Voted back into office twice, in 2005 and 2011, Bozize has been accused of plotting to modify the constitution to allow him to seek a third term in 2016.

But the government delegation has voiced confidence that concessions 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.

Wednesday's talks are to be followed on Thursday by a summit of ECCAS heads of state, in which Bozize is expected to take part, said Ikouebe.

ECCAS on Tuesday urged the government to back a "regional approach" to the crisis, an implicit criticism of the troop reinforcements sent by South Africa -- not part of the regional bloc -- to shore up Bozize's position in Bangui.

The rebel offensive has raised international alarm of a prolonged conflict engulfing the mineral-rich, impoverished country known for coups and mutinies.

In the former colonial power France, the foreign ministry welcomed the launch of talks.

"Negotiation is more necessary than ever. We call on all parties to find the path to a durable political solution to the crisis," said ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.


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