NEW: Rebels attack two towns, searching for hiding civilians
NEW: Peace talks are planned for Thursday
U.N. says armed groups are forcing children to fight and serve as sex slaves
Both opposition and pro-government militias are recruiting child soldiers, it says
Rebels attacked two towns Saturday in the Central African Republic even as government officials planned for peace talks next week, authorities said.
Meanwhile, opposition and pro-government militias are recruiting child soldiers as the country faces a rebellion in the north, the United Nations warned.
Rebels demanding the resignation of President Francois Bozize have seized various towns and threatened to head to the capital of Bangui.
The Seleka rebel coalition assaulted the towns of Alindao and Kouango in a direction toward the capital from Bambari, where they already seized control, said Josue Binoua, minister of decentralization and territorial administration.
The rebels launched their offensive about 1 a.m. Saturday, said Jules Gauthier Ngbapo, a spokesman for Binoua.
“They are shouting and asking people to come out,” Ngbapo said. “The rebels tell civilians that they are there to protect them.”
But fearful residents are hiding. The rebels sent spies on motor bikes, and then troops rode into the two towns on large vehicles, Ngbapo said. They searched for people, he said.
“Civilians are afraid, and most of them have fled the town and are now hiding in the forests, but the rebels are still patrolling the towns, waiting for the innocent people to come out,” Ngbapo said.
“The rebels are shooting randomly, destroying properties and have been raping civilians,” he said.
CNN was unable to confirm government claims about the occupation of the towns.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers from the Economic Community of Central African States will meet Tuesday in the Gabon capital of Libreville to set an agenda for peace talks, said Placide Ibouanga Ndinga, spokesman for the Economic Community.
The Seleka rebel coalition, opposition party officials, private sector representatives, U.N. officials and President Francois Bozize are all expected to participate in the talks scheduled for Thursday, said Ndinga.
But officials in the Central Africa Republic questioned how peace talks could commence as rebels attacked.
“How can there be peace if the rebels are looting, raping and abducting our civilians?” Ngbapo said.
Bozize has said he will not seek re-election in 2016, Ngbapo said.
As the government scrambles to quash the rebellion, alarm is growing as children are separated from their relatives.
“Reliable sources have informed us that children are newly being recruited among their ranks. These reports are of serious concern,” said Souleymane Diabate, the U.N. children agency’s representative in the nation.
Armed groups are forcing children under age 18 to fight, carry supplies and serve as sex slaves, the agency said Friday.
Before the conflict started last month, 2,500 children were linked to various armed groups. That number is expected to rise as the recent conflict continues, officials said.
About 300,000 children have been affected by the rebellion, including family separation, sexual violence, displacement and lack of access to education and health facilities.
The crisis started in December, when Seleka accused the president of reneging on a peace deal and demanded that he step down. They seized towns in the north and threatened to march to the capital, although they appear to have halted their advance. MikHey, Hey
Bozize has called on the international community, including the United States and France, to help stave off the rebellion.
Bozize specifically called on France – which ruled his country, then as a colony known as Ubangi-Shari, until it gained independence in 1960 – and the United States to help ensure “the rebels return home … instead of destroying and killing Central Africans.”
CNN’s Faith Karimi contributed to this report.