The president of Central African Republic fled to neighboring Cameroon on Monday, as the rebels who overthrew him began squabbling who would now lead the impoverished nation long wracked by rebellions.
South Africa said 13 of its soldiers were killed in a fight against the Seleka rebels over the weekend as up to 3,000 fighters attacked its troops while advancing through the capital, Bangui. It was one of South Africa’s heaviest losses in combat in nearly two decades and prompted criticism about why the country’s forces had intervened in such a volatile conflict.
One of the Seleka rebel leaders, Michel Djotodia, said Monday he considers himself to be the new head of state.
But another rebel leader told reporters his group does not recognize Djotodia as president, and says they will challenge his attempt to install himself at the helm. The move raises the specter of continuing unrest, amid reports of chaotic and violent looting in the capital, Bangui.
The United States is “deeply concerned about a serious deterioration in the security situation” in Central African Republic, said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement Sunday.
“We urgently call on the Seleka leadership which has taken control of Bangui to establish law and order in the city and to restore basic services of electricity and water,” the statement said.
The government of Cameroon confirmed Monday that Bozize is seeking “temporary” refuge there before leaving for another unspecified country.
The ousted president managed to get out of Central African Republic amid fierce fighting over the weekend.
South African forces who were there to aid Bozize’s troops suffered casualties when they “fought a high-tempo battle for nine hours defending the South African military base, until the bandits raised a white flag and asked for a cease-fire,” South African President Jacob Zuma said. “Our soldiers inflicted heavy casualties among the attacking bandit forces.”
Gen. Solly Shoke, South Africa’s military chief, said 3,000 rebels took part in fighting. He said the assailants were armed with mortars and heavy machine guns.
Following Bozize’s ouster, divisions are already emerging over will lead the country.
In Paris, Nelson N’Jaadder, the president of the Revolution for Democracy, one of the rebel groups belonging to the Seleka rebel coalition which invaded the capital, said that his fighters do not recognize Michel Djotodia, who earlier claimed he was head of state of Central African Republic.
N’Jaadder said there was never a consensus around appointing Djotodia as their overall leader.
“We do not recognize him as president,” N’Jaadder told The Associated Press by telephone from Paris. “We had agreed that we would push to Bangui in order to arrest Bozize and that we would then announce an 18-month transition, a transition that would be as fast as possible — and not one that would last three years,” he said.
“For your information, I have enough soldiers loyal to me to attack Djotodia. I am planning to take the Wednesday flight to Bangui.”
N’Jaadder said that rebels had been pillaging people’s homes in Bangui, including the homes of French expatriates. He said that on Monday, he had received a phone call from France’s ambassador to Bangui and had presented his apology, explaining that those doing the pillaging were mostly Djotodia’s men. “We came to liberate the people, not to steal from them. This is shameful. Unacceptable,” he said.
The Seleka rebel coalition is made up of several rebel groups, which last December began their rapid sweep into the Central African Republic, a nation of 4.5 million located at the heart of the continent.
The rebels pushed all the way to a town just outside Damara, 75 kilometers (47 miles) from the capital, before entering into talks with the government. In January, they signed a peace deal in Libreville, the capital of the neighboring nation of Gabon, agreeing to allow Bozize to carry out the last three years of his term, in return for a number of concessions.
Last week, they declared the peace deal void, saying Bozize had failed to free their prisoners and had refused to send back the South African troops that were guarding him, two of the points of the accord.
In just three days, they swept past Damara, marking the “red line” set up by a regional force to divide rebel-held territory from the area under government control, and advanced all the way to a checkpoint, PK12, just outside the capital.
The speed of the rebel advance, and the fact that they succeeded in pushing past the South African troops stationed in Bangui suggests they are well-armed, and likely benefiting from the support of neighboring nations. There has been speculation that either Chad or Sudan or Gabon had provided the rebels with arms and logistical support. Djotodia rejected that claim.
“If we picked up arms, it’s not because we were pushed by this or that person,” he told RFI. “It’s poverty, simply put, that pushed us to pick up arms — that’s all.”
The coup is expected to affect the hunt for Joseph Kony, said the commander of African troops tracking the the fugitive warlord. Bozize was a strong supporter of African efforts to dismantle Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and allowed the creation of two anti-Kony military bases in his country.
Ugandan Brig. Dick Olum, speaking from his South Sudanese military base in Nzara, said Monday he is concerned by past rebel statements that all foreign troops must leave the country. Some 3,350 African troops are currently deployed against the LRA in South Sudan and Central African Republic.
The U.S. also has anti-Kony military advisers in CAR. The U.S. Africa Command did not have any immediate comment Monday.