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Rebels 'control CAR capital'

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BANGUI, Central African Republic (Reuters) -- Rebels loyal to former army chief Francois Bozize said on Sunday they had taken control of the Central African Republic's capital, as the president took refuge in a neighbouring country.

Parfait Mbaye, a spokesman for the rebels, read a statement on state radio on Sunday morning which he said was signed by Bozize, who has led a series of coup attempts in this impoverished nation over the past two years.

"We control the city," Mbaye said, referring to the capital Bangui. He said Bozize was in Bangui and was expected to make a radio announcement later.

As occasional shots rang out across Bangui on Sunday, people looted homes belonging to Patasse's officials and relatives, carrying away furniture, televisions and cookers.

President Ange-Felix Patasse was in neighbouring Cameroon, stranded by the rebellion which took place while he was out of the country attending a regional summit in Niger.

Mbaye urged people to stop looting and also called on all military personnel, including soldiers, paramilitary police and customs officers, to return to barracks in the city.

Gunfire crackled across Bangui on Saturday afternoon as fighters in pickup trucks attacked the airport and Patasse's residence, quickly seizing control of strategic points and pushing back an African peacekeeping force.

Residents said soldiers from the regular armed forces did not confront the fighters, who were dressed in military fatigues with some also wearing white headscarves.

Patasse had been flying home from Niger when the attack forced his plane to change course to Cameroon. He arrived with his wife and entourage at a hotel in the capital Yaounde late on Saturday.

Patasse has beaten back previous attacks by Bozize's men with the help of Libyan troops and Congolese rebels. The Libyans have been replaced by a peacekeeping force of some 350 troops from nearby central African countries.

The peacekeeping force did not take part in Saturday's fighting. "This does not concern us," a captain in Bangui said.

Government officials in Bangui were not immediately available for comment and Patasse was tight-lipped when he arrived at the Yaounde Hilton on Saturday.

Central African Republic has accused neighbouring Chad of backing the rebels loyal to Bozize, who earlier fled to Chad after being accused of plotting to oust Patasse.

Patasse met Chad's President Idriss Deby on the sidelines of 18-member Community of the Sahel and Saharan States (Comessa) summit in Niger on Saturday morning and the two said they wanted a peaceful end to the crisis.

Central African Republic's history since independence from colonial ruler France has been marked by brutal dictatorship, revolts and coup attempts.

In February, Congolese rebels loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba drove Bozize's forces north towards the border with Chad, but large swathes of the landlocked, diamond-rich Central African Republic are back in the hands of fighters loyal to Bozize.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting and sought refuge in southern Chad, worrying humanitarian agencies which fear people will go hungry if the conflict persists.

The United Nations refugee agency said on Friday that 4,000 refugees spilled over the border into Chad last week, taking the total number of civilians from both countries to flee to 30,000 since mid-February.

Central African Republic is dirt poor. The former French colony has 3.5 million people, earning an average of $290 a year. Its main exports are diamonds, timber, coffee and cotton.

Bangui come bottom in a quality-of-life survey ranking 215 cities throughout the world, published this month.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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