BANGUI, Central African Republic (AFP) - The president of the Central African Republic was on Sunday said to be ready to make important concessions to a rebel coalition that has easily pushed its way across the impoverished country and was within striking distance of the capital Bangui.
After meeting with President Francois Bozize, African Union chief Thomas Boni Yayi said Bozize was ready to take part in talks to end the crisis, and that he would not run for president in 2016.
The talks "should lead to a national unity government", Boni Yayi said, adding that Bozize, who seized power in a 2003 coup and then won two elections, would not run for re-election in 2016 and would "respect constitutional provisions".
Opposition figures have criticised the president, whom they suspect wants to modify the constitution to enable a third term in office.
Rebels from a coalition known as Seleka, who took up arms December 10 near the Chad border and have met little resistance from government troops, on Sunday warned they could enter Bangui.
The rebels, now controlling five regional capitals in the centre and north of the country, faced no opposition as they entered the town of Sibut around 150 kilometres (95 miles) from Bangui on Saturday, a military official told AFP.
The country's armed forces had retreated to Damara, the last major town on the way to the capital, about 75 kilometres (45 miles) to the southwest.
Rebel spokesman Eric Massi on Sunday had said rebels would enter Bangui "if the situation demands it" but later said he had "taken note" of Bozize's pledges.
"A meeting shall be held with (Boni Yayi) to study in detail President Bozize's proposals and together create a plan to end the crisis," he told French radio.
With the rebels closing in, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), which has troops in the country, warned both sides Sunday that Damara must remain in government control.
"The ECCAS forces are on maximum alert, and the city of Damara is the line not to be crossed. We ask the FACA (government forces) and the rebels not to advance from their current positions and to give talks a chance," said Antonio Di Garcia, head of the regional bloc's mission, on national radio.
The rebels have been insisting on Bozize's departure.
"That issue must be discussed with the African Union," Massi told AFP. "President Bozize must recognise his military defeat on the ground ... and draw the necessary conclusions".
Officials on both sides said the rebels had also repelled army soldiers trying to recapture Bambari, a former military stronghold in the landlocked country, one of the world's poorest despite vast mineral wealth.
The coalition of three rebel movements in Seleka -- or the "alliance" in the Sango language -- launched their offensive claiming the government failed to meet the terms of peace pacts signed in 2007 and 2011, which include providing for disarmament, pay and social reintegration for insurgents.
Bozize on Sunday asked for a meeting with French President Francois Hollande, but calls for help from former colonial power France, as well as from the United States, have so far not been heeded.
France has a military presence of about 580 troops in the country, 180 of whom arrived overnight Saturday, the French defence ministry said.
This contingent is on hand to help protect and evacuate French and European nationals, should the need arise.
Hollande late Sunday urged all sides involved in the conflict to end hostilities, and welcomed efforts to find a negotiated solution to the crisis.
Neighbouring Chad, which helped Bozize with rebellions in 2010, has sent a contingent to the country, but those troops too have retreated from the rebel advance.
In Bangui, the population was fearful of a rebel attack and the uncertainty has caused a sharp spike in food prices. Authorities have imposed a nighttime curfew, resulting in an eery quiet in the usually noisy city.
In the town centre, businesses had hired guards armed with machetes to stand watch and prevent looting.
"I'm afraid of the rebels coming," said vegetable vendor Euphrasie Ngotanga in the city's huge Sambo market. "We're not going to sell our produce if there's no peace. And then how we will feed our children?"The landlocked Central African Republic, with a population of about five million, is notorious for unrest including coups, army mutinies and rebellions.
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