Central African Republic’s army chiefs pledged allegiance to the country’s self-proclaimed president Michel Djotodia on Thursday as the ex-rebel leader consolidated control four days after his fighters seized the capital.
Djotodia seized control of the resource-rich nation after thousands of his rebel fighters swept into the riverside capital on Sunday, ousting President Francois Bozize and triggering days of looting.
“The former FACA (national army) officers wanted to meet with President Djotodia to tell him they recognize him as the new president,” said Maurice Ntossui, a commander of the African peacekeeping force in the country who attended the meeting.
“All the former chiefs of police, gendarmes, the head of the armed forces and other senior officers came to the meeting. This was a form of surrender,” he said.
At least 13 South African soldiers deployed to reinforce Bozize’s army were killed in the rebel onslaught in the worst military setback for Pretoria since the end of apartheid in 1994 and one which put a dent in any ambitions it has of becoming a continental superpower.
A spokesman for the Seleka rebels said on Thursday their leaders were still struggling to restore calm in the city of 600,000, where armed civilians were pillaging shops and homes. Seleka had asked police and other civil servants to return to work, he said.
“Seleka are fighters and they can’t do police work,” spokesman Colonel Youssouf Ben Moussa said.
“We are trying to get our forces into their barracks … It is true that there is still some looting but it is not our men. It is civilians that have taken up arms,” he said.
There was sporadic shooting in parts of the city but many shops and markets were reopening and traffic was returning as security slowly improved.
“There is still some fear but we need to overcome it in order to live,” said Rodolph Balenga, a 29-year-old student who said he had come outside to buy bread for his family after they ran out of food at home.
“Hunger can kill as well as bullets,” said Marie Flore Boka, a 43-year-old civil servant who was also on the streets.
The rebels’ overthrow of Bozize, who seized power in a coup backed by Chad in 2003, was the latest of many rebellions since the poor, landlocked country won independence from France in 1960. It was condemned by the United Nations and the African Union, which imposed sanctions and a travel ban on several Seleka leaders.
Seleka said they launched the lightning offensive – in which they fought their way from the far north of the country to the presidential palace in four days – after the collapse of a power-sharing deal signed in January.
Witnesses, including among the scores of French expatriates being evacuated from Bangui airport on Thursday, said Seleka fighters went on a looting spree after taking the capital.
“They came into my hotel room and drew their weapons on me, demanding my money,” said Yves De Moor, a French business owner. “One of them put a bullet into the chamber, which was a terrifying moment, and I gave them everything.”
Bangui resident Henriette Dobozo said rebel fighters came to her family’s business. “They used three pickup trucks that we had to take away everything we own,” she told Reuters, tears streaming down her face.
Neighboring Cameroon confirmed on Monday that Bozize had arrived there but said it was not giving him permanent refuge.
With France’s military refusing to intervene, two heavily armed columns of insurgents in pick-up trucks stormed into Bangui, brushing aside a South African force of 400 troops which attempted to block their path.
An officer for the African peacekeeping force, FOMAC, said the 13 dead South African troops, and 27 who were wounded, had been returned home, but that the rest of the force – along with their weapons – remained in Bangui awaiting evacuation.
South African media and a senior Ugandan officer said South African soldiers gathered in Uganda on Thursday for a “new mission” to Central African Republic.
“The intention of the South Africans is to reorganize themselves and then redeploy massively in CAR and topple these rebels. They were humiliated and they want to avenge,” the officer said, asking not to be named. Spokesmen for South Africa’s armed forces and defense ministry declined to comment.