Chadian soldiers on a vehicle in Am Zoer. The Chadian government has intervened at the invitation of neighboring Central African Republic., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
January 2, 2013, 7:29 p.m. ET.
African Neighbors Cooperate to Halt Rebels
Coalition Stalls Militant Offensive, in Shift From Reliance on the West
By ALEXIS FLYNN
Chadian soldiers deployed Wednesday in Damara, the last strategic settlement between rebels and the Central African Republic's capital
JOHANNESBURG—Central African Republic President François Bozizé has turned to his neighbors for diplomatic leverage and military might to fend off a rebel advance—the latest conflict in which African nations have tried to defuse a crisis before Western powers are pressed to intervene.
As foreign troops arrived, rebel forces advancing on the capital, Bangui, said Wednesday they would halt their offensive and begin preparing for peace talks. The statement marked a departure from previous threats to take the capital and dropped a demand that Mr. Bozizé resign as a precondition to talks.
Since the offensive began three weeks ago, the capture of several key towns by the Seleka rebel coalition has sparked fears that the landlocked former French colony, known for its history of coups, military revolts and brutal rule, could once again descend into chaos.
The coalition of different insurgent and political groups has attempted to tap into popular frustrations with Mr. Bozizé, who seized power in a coup in 2003. The country remains fractured by religious fault lines and divisions between its more prosperous south and undeveloped, largely Muslim north.
"From today, I have asked our forces to maintain their positions because we want to enter talks for a political settlement," rebel spokesman Eric Massi said from Paris. "Our partners are discussing proposals to end the crisis, including a political transition."
The shift by rebels—who accuse Mr. Bozizé of failing to honor previous accords—came after other African countries sent troops to prevent the violent overthrow of his government.
A detachment of Gabonese soldiers flew to Bangui on Tuesday, joining a 400-strong contingent from Chad and 120 troops from the Republic of Congo, who were deployed at the beginning of the week. Cameroon is expected to send forces by Friday.
The use of African military muscle is a change from the days when former colonial master France intervened in battles to control Central African Republic, as it did in 2007 and 1979.
France still has about 600 troops in the country. President François Hollande said last week the French military presence wasn't aimed at "protecting a regime," only its citizens and other interests.
African countries are also using their collective diplomatic weight in an effort to resolve the conflict. African Union leaders have praised the troop deployments to Central African Republic as a means to stabilize the security situation. The AU has also dispatched a special representative to Gabon to lay the groundwork for talks, which could begin as early as next week.
The collective response in the Central African Republic follows other such forays into the continent's most intractable crises.
In September, a joint Kenyan and African Union force struck a blow against the al Qaeda-linked militia al-Shabaab, driving it from the Somalia port city of Kismayo. The group survives, however, and has been blamed for a spate of recent attacks in Mogadishu.
More recently, renewed fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo was quickly halted after regional leaders encouraged the peace talks that are now under way in Uganda.
Nations across West Africa are planning to deploy thousands of soldiers to northern Mali to help government troops try to dislodge Islamist fighters linked to an al Qaeda offshoot, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Many past African conflicts festered as African nations struggled to agree to intervene. In the Ivory Coast, a disputed election result led to months of unrest; in Libya, the African Union, led by South Africa, refused to recognize rebels attempting to overthrow the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. As a result, Africa's diplomats were shunted aside while France, the U.S. and other Western countries took lead roles in tackling the conflicts.
The standoff between Mr. Bozizé and the Seleka rebel movement is likely to be tough. Like other countries on the resource-rich continent, Central African Republic is home to largely untapped diamond and uranium deposits—and entrenched conflicts. Most of the rebels are Muslims from the poorer northern areas marching toward the predominantly Christian south.
The campaign by Seleka, launched in early December, brought rapid territorial gains, including the diamond-trading town of Bria. Their progress has since slowed as regional powers became involved.
Chad's forces are deployed in Damara, the last strategic settlement between the rebels and the capital. Chad's President Idriss Déby is an ally of Mr. Bozizé and head of the central African regional bloc.
Though some questions persist over the legitimacy of Mr. Bozizé's rule, even after elections in 2005 and 2011, neighbors are keen to preserve regional stability, said Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa project director at the International Crisis Group. "The African Union doesn't want a government to be overthrown," he said. "This is a big test."
—David Gauthier-Villars in Paris and Emmanuel Tumanjong in Douala contributed to this article.
Write to Alexis Flynn at email@example.com