JOHANNESBURG -- As efforts to broker a deal to stop a rebel advance failed, residents of the capital of the Central African Republic are packing up their belongings and fleeing into the country's vast hinterlands, fearing a major battle between government troops and guerrilla fighters.
Rebels rejected an offer from the country's president, François Bozizé. It was brokered by the African Union and proposed forming a government of national unity. But the rebels balked, saying that previous agreements with the president had been made and quickly broken.
"Bozizé speaks, but does not keep his word," said a rebel spokesman, Juma Narkoyo. "That is why we have taken up arms to make our voices heard."
The rebel coalition, known as Seleka, is made up of several groups of fighters opposed to the government of Mr. Bozizé, who came to power after a brief civil war 2003 and has had a tenuous grip on the presidency ever since, winning two elections but facing a constant threat of rebellions aimed at toppling him.
The Seleka rebels say that Mr. Bozizé has not lived up to the terms of a peace agreement signed in 2007. Mr. Narkoyo said that the rebels had no plans to seize the capital, Bangui, but in the past they have advanced despite claims that they would stay put.
Government officials, meanwhile, said that the rebels were not actually from Central African Republic, but were instead foreign provocateurs bent on destabilizing one of the most fragile nations in Africa in order to exploit its mineral wealth.
"They are Chadians, Sudanese and Nigerians," said Louis Oguéré Ngaïkouma, secretary general of Mr. Bozizé's political party. "It is a conspiracy against the people of the Central African Republic and its president to steal our riches."
Suspicion of one's neighbors is no idle thing in this part of Africa, where local wars often become wider conflagrations. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which lies to the south of Central African Republic, has been caught up in one of the deadliest conflicts of the last half-century as Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese troops fought over the country's bounty of diamonds, coltan and tin.
War in Sudan, which lies north of the Central African Republic, has also spilled over into its neighbors, especially Chad, which also borders the Central African Republic.
Hugues Kossi, a college student in Bangui, said he feared all-out war in his city.
"I am afraid of combat and stray bullets," he said. But he said he was also tired of the poverty and misrule of Mr. Bozizé's government.
"It is bad governance that has led us to this situation," Mr. Kossi said.
The United States closed its embassy in Bangui and evacuated its staff members. The French government has said that it will not help Mr. Bozizé fight the rebels, but that it deployed an extra contingent of soldiers from a neighboring country to help protect French citizens.
Christian Panika contributed reporting from Bangui, Central African Republic.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.