FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- Rebels entered Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, on Sunday morning, seizing control of the city in the culmination of a lengthy uprising in one of the world's weakest and most impoverished states. The country's president was reported to have fled.
The rebels met little opposition, either from the country's military or troops from the region who had been sent to bolster the government. The rebels immediately set about looting, according to residents, another indication of the state's feeble hold on the destitute country.
"Bangui is under the control of rebel elements who entered the capital this morning," said Martin Wiguele, a member of the country's Parliament, speaking by phone from Bangui. "They fired in the air and asked people to stay at home.
The whereabouts of President François Bozizé, who took power in a coup in 2003, were not immediately clear, with local radio and the French government reporting that he had fled. Analysts suggested that he was unlikely to be missed, either by citizens of the Central African Republic or by foreign governments because his efforts had been focused on staying in power rather than developing his country.
Bangui residents said that they had heard heavy-weapons fire on Sunday morning and that widespread looting by they rebels was under way, with the fighters hauling away cars, trucks, computers and freezers.
"There are gunshots here and there," said the deputy director of the president's press office, Essiae Nganamokoi. "Nobody is going out. It is too dangerous."
The seizure of Bangui is the most significant step yet for the rebellion by disgruntled guerrillas who call themselves Seleka, which is the word for alliance in the Sango language. But the Central African Republic, a country roughly the size of Texas with a population of about four million, has known little but coups, rebellions, hunger and destitution since it gained independence from France in 1960.
Since Saturday, France has sent 300 soldiers to Bangui from Gabon, said a French military spokesman, Col. Thierry Burkhard. Those troops, who arrived to reinforce a permanent deployment of 250 French soldiers in Bangui, have been ordered to protect French citizens and the French Embassy, Colonel Burkhard said, and have been stationed at strategic points in the city.
"Things are going pretty much all right," he said, but he declined to say whether French forces had engaged in any fighting with rebels or government soldiers.
In a statement on Sunday afternoon, President François Hollande of France appealed "to all parties for calm and for dialogue." Mr. Hollande said he had "taken note" of Mr. Bozizé's departure from the country.
The chaos began in 2005, when small-scale rebellions erupted in the loosely governed and remote north, where the guerrilla alliance was born. The government appeared powerless to halt them.
"The C.A.R. has become virtually a phantom state, lacking any meaningful institutional capacity," the International Crisis Group said in report in 2010, noting that the country was in "permanent crisis." Talks with the rebels in 2008 failed, just as they had before and would again; Mr. Bozizé relied on foreign governments to help pay civil servants in the capital, one of his few bases of support.
"It is actually a country that is not governed," said Thibaud Lesueur, an expert on the Central African Republic at the International Crisis Group. "There is a kind of immobilism that is very serious, a thorough absence of the state." A failed coup in 2001 led to 300 deaths, and 50,000 people fled the capital. More fighting erupted in 2002 and 2003 between government troops and rebels.
"Seleka is a coalition of rebels groups that already existed for some time," Mr. Lesueur said. The takeover of the capital on Sunday was merely "something one could have feared for a long time," he said. The grievances have remained consistent: lack of development in the north.
Mr. Bozizé's strategy has been to buy off rebel leaders with government positions, analysts said. But that did little to quell discontent among the rank-and-file rebels. "The Seleka leaders didn't have the influence they thought they had, and the Seleka men still wanted to fight," Mr. Lesueur said.
The rebels said last week that President Bozizé had reneged on a January peace agreement by failing to integrate some of their men into the army and by refusing to send home the foreign troops, including soldiers from South Africa and Chad, who were helping to train the army. The rebels quickly took over towns around the capital and then moved into Bangui about 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, witnesses said. What little resistance they encountered crumbled about two hours later.
By early Sunday evening, the gunfire in Bangui had trailed off, apart from celebratory shots. But the capital remained tense. "It's very difficult to move around the city at this moment," said Serge St. Louis, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders. "If we leave our compound, it's almost automatic that our cars will be seized" by patrolling rebels, Mr. Saint Louis said. He said wounded people were filling the city's hospitals, which have little means to treat them.
"All the institutions of the republic have fallen," said Mr. Wiguele, the member of Parliament. "It is the new elements that have control. The new strongmen have not said what they have in mind. This changing of government by gunfire, this has consequences in a country that is already very poor and miserable."
Sylvie Panika contributed reporting from Bangui, Central African Republic, and Scott Sayare from Paris.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.