Rebel forces in the Central African Republic on Wednesday launched two attacks close to the capital Bangui that were swiftly repelled, Interior Minister Henri Wanzet Linguissara said.
Armed groups opposed to President Faustin Archange Touadera carried out simultaneous raids on Bangui’s outskirts at dawn, he told AFP.
It is the first time the rebels have struck so close to the city since elections on December 27, a vote preceded by accusations of an attempted coup.
Fighting was still underway, said the spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSCA, Lieutenant-Colonel Abdoulaziz Fall, who only mentioned one attack.
The attacks took place nine and 12 kilometres (five and seven miles) from the capital, targeting two army brigades, the minister said.
“Thanks to the bravery of our forces and bilateral support, we were able to repel the assailants, who are now in disarray,” he said.
Russia and Rwanda last month dispatched support, comprising heavily-armed Rwandan troops and Russian paramilitaries, to shore up Touadera’s government under bilateral accords.
“This morning at around 6 am in Bangui, the MINUSCA position at kilometre mark 12 was attacked by armed elements,” Fall said.
UN troops fired back and reinforcements were sent, he said, adding that there were no casualties among the peacekeepers.
“Exchange of fire has lessened, but the situation remains tense,” he said.
A MINUSCA officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three CAR troops had been wounded. An AFP journalist saw the bodies of at least two rebels.
Many local people were fleeing the combat area for Bangui, carrying suitcases and bags, as occasional gunfire broke out.
Lais, a local man, said, “I’m afraid. I don’t know even where my family is.”
“All we want is peace,” he said.
In the capital itself, the streets were deserted in mid-morning, apart from a heavy military presence, an AFP reporter saw.
– Sporadic attacks –
In the runup to the elections, an anti-Touadera alliance of six armed groups called the Coalition of Patriots sought to advance on Bangui but were thwarted.
Their operation, according to Touadera, was an attempted putsch fomented with the help of his predecessor, Francois Bozize.
Since then, the rebels have since carried out sporadic attacks, chiefly in towns far from the capital and on the RN3 highway, the crucial supply line linking Bangui with neighbouring Cameroon.
Vladimir Monteiro, the spokesman for the UN mission, said UN and national troops repelled a “violent” attack on Saturday at Bouar, the country’s fifth largest town, which straddles the RN3 about 350 kms northwest of Bangui.
In Grimari, 300 kms northeast of Bangui, armed groups fired rockets on Sunday at a MINUSCA base, Fall said.
Touadera was declared victor of the ballot on January 4, although the CAR’s political opposition has cried foul.
The results account for only about half of registered voters, as hundreds of thousands were unable to cast their vote in areas held by rebels.
Militias claiming to represent ethnic or other groups control two-thirds of CAR’s territory, raising income from mineral resources and “taxes” on traders and roadblocks.
– Long turmoil –
CAR prosecutors have launched an investigation into Bozize, who came to power in a coup in 2003 before being overthrown in 2013, after which the country slid into sectarian conflict.
Thousands of people have died and more than a quarter of the population of 4.9 million have fled their homes. Of these, 675,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries.
Bozize denies allegations of any alleged coup.
MINUSCA has 11,500 troops in the CAR, making it one of the biggest UN peacekeeping operations in the world.
It was reinforced before the elections by 300 Rwandan peacekeepers sent from South Sudan for a two-month deployment.
The UN Security Council on Wednesday was to meet behind closed doors to debate a French motion on the presence of foreign troops and mercenaries in the former French colony, as well as an embargo on arms sales, which has been in place since the 2013 civil war.