JOHANNESBURG -- Rebels on Thursday inched closer to the capital of the Central African Republic, one of Africa's most fragile states, threatening to topple an elected government that has had an unsteady grip on power for nearly a decade.
Thousands of civilians fled cities and towns into dense forest as embassies and humanitarian aid organizations evacuated many of their staff members from the capital, Bangui.
The rebel group, an amalgamation of several different factions fighting under the name Seleka Coalition, is trying to remove President François Bozizé, a military officer who seized power in 2003 and has twice since been elected president. The rebels accuse Mr. Bozizé of failing to live up to the terms of peace agreements signed beginning in 2007 to quell several uprisings.
The rebels have trounced government forces in the country's central and northern regions, taking numerous towns and chopping away at the distance between them and a potential overthrow in Bangui, the seat of one of Africa's weakest governments, situated in the middle of one of Africa's most volatile, porous regions.
Central African Republic is sandwiched between some of the most unstable nations on the continent: Chad and South Sudan sit to its north and east, and just south is the Democratic Republic of Congo. Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army and the focus of a global manhunt, is believed to be hiding in the dense forests of southeastern Central African Republic.
Caught in the middle of this maelstrom are the country's nearly five million civilians, who have been forced to flee their homes for the deep cover of the dense, central African forest dozens of times over the past five decades. In 2007, fighting grew so intense that tens of thousands of people fled into the deeply troubled nations of Chad and Sudan, so desperate were they for some respite from the bloodshed.
"The population is extremely worried because the rebel advance has moved quickly in a short matter of time, and the army is moving backwards," said Sylvain Groulx, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Bangui.
The mass exodus raised the specter of a humanitarian crisis.
"You have a population that under the best times of peace have alarming rates of mortality, some of the worst sanitary conditions in the world; health indicators are extremely bad," Mr. Groulx said. "Now, all of a sudden, when there is fighting, they are out into the field."
Protesters threw stones and tore down the French flag at the French Embassy, demanding that the former colonial power do more to thwart the rebel advance.
France, which maintains a contingent of about 250 soldiers near Bangui as part of a multinational peacekeeping force, has made clear that it does not intend to be drawn into the conflict, despite requests by Mr. Bozizé.
"If we're present, it is not in order to protect a regime," the French president, François Hollande, told reporters on Thursday. "It's to protect our citizens and our interests and in no way to intervene in the interior affairs of a country."
Only under a United Nations mandate would France consider a non-peacekeeping intervention in the Central African Republic, which gained independence from its French colonizers in 1960, Mr. Hollande said. The era of regular French intervention in the internal affairs of its former colonies "is over with," he said.
The Central African Republic is a landlocked nation with plenty of natural wealth but a history of violence, repression and bad government that has left its people among the poorest in the globe.
It has known little peace since it won its independence from France in 1960. The leader of its independence movement, Barthélemy Boganda, died in a mysterious plane crash just before the country was liberated, and a power struggle ensued, leaving David Dacko as president. But Mr. Dacko's rule was short lived -- in 1965 his cousin, a military officer named Jean-Bédel Bokassa, overthrew his government.
Mr. Bokassa, with the support of the French government, became a monstrous caricature of the brutal, post-colonial African dictator. In 1977 he crowned himself emperor of his tiny nation, sitting upon a golden throne shaped like an eagle and his head topped by a diamond-encrusted crown, in an elaborate ceremony costing $22 million. His cruelty knew no bounds -- he fed people to crocodiles for sport, and torture was a common tactic of his police and army. Rumors abounded that he was a cannibal who enjoyed eating the flesh of small children.
A coup removed Mr. Bokassa from power in 1979, and another quickly followed. Like many African nations, Central African Republic took halting steps toward democracy in the 1980s and '90s, but attempted coups and military domination of politics continued.
Mr. Bozizé has twice run for elections, first in 2005 and again in 2011, when he was re-elected by substantial margins.
Lydia Polgreen reported from Johannesburg, and Josh Kron from Kampala, Uganda. Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.
Correction: December 27, 2012, Thursday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of the leader of Central African Republic's independence movement. He is Barthélemy Boganda, not Bartélémy.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.