UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council urged rebels in the Central African Republic on Friday to halt their military offensive, withdraw from cities they have seized, and take part in negotiations to find a political solution to the impoverished country's longstanding problems.
Rebels calling for President Francois Bozize to step down have seized 10 towns in a month, but they halted their advance on the capital Bangui on Dec. 29 pending negotiations.
The Security Council called on all parties to seek a peaceful solution and engage in negotiations scheduled to be held in Libreville, Gabon starting Jan. 8 "without preconditions and in good faith." It encouraged the government, armed groups, the political opposition and other interested parties to use the talks "to negotiate a comprehensive political solution."
Pakistan's U.N. Ambassador Masood Khan, the current council president who read the press statement, was asked whether the talks would definitely take place given uncertainty about participation of all the rebels and other groups.
"Right now preparations are being made and we're hoping the talks will take place — and all parties are being urged in that direction," Khan said. "The talks are important to reduce tension and de-escalate the situation and look towards diplomatic solutions."
The Security Council said the activities by the rebel coalition known as Seleka "gravely undermine" the country's security and stability, "constitute a threat to the civilian population, and hinder the provision of humanitarian assistance." It urged all parties to allow humanitarian workers and aid to reach civilians affected by the offensive.
Seleka, which means alliance in the local Sango language, is made up of four separate groups which have previously fought one another. Bozize has offered to form a government of national unity but the rebels have questioned his sincerity and are demanding that he relinquish power. They also want the government to respect previous peace accords providing for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former rebels into society.
The council expressed concern about reports of arrests, detention, looting and the targeting of ethnic minorities as well as the recruitment and use of children in the conflict.
Council members urged all parties to stop violence against civilians and to respect human rights and said those responsible should be held accountable.
The U.N. children's agency said Friday said it has received "credible reports that rebel groups and pro-government militias are increasingly recruiting and involving children in armed conflict."
Souleymane Diabate, UNICEF representative for Central African Republic, said children who have become separated from their families amid the instability are at the greatest risk.
UNICEF estimates that even before the latest crisis some 2,500 children were part of armed groups in the country.
Central African Republic is a desperately poor, landlocked nation that has suffered numerous rebellions since independence from France. President Bozize himself came to power in 2003 through a rebellion that was backed by Chadian forces and has since won two elections. He says he will not leave before finishing his term in 2016.
Despite the nation's wealth of gold, diamonds, timber and uranium, the government remains perpetually cash-strapped.
The nation's woes also have been compounded by its proximity to other conflict-ridden states including Sudan's Darfur region. Uganda's notorious rebel Lord's Resistance Army also has taken advantage of the weak state to take refuge in the Central African Republic — attacking and abducting civilians with near-impunity.
Associated Press Writer Krista Larson contributed to this report from Bangui, Central African Republic