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Rebels flee key Central African Republic town

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — Heavily armed rebels fled a key town not far from Central African Republic's capital as French and African peacekeepers deployed on Sunday, witnesses said, though a rebel commander warned they were likely to return.

Civilians immediately began looting the property of Muslim residents of the town, witnesses said. Members of the mostly Muslim Seleka coalition, accused of committing widespread atrocities since ousting the president of a decade in March last year, had in recent days gathered in the town of Sibut, 110 miles (180 kilometers) north of Bangui.

Some feared the rebels were preparing to overthrow a transitional government appointed last month. But as heavy rain fell early Sunday, the 200 or so rebels split up and fled, with one convoy of vehicles heading north and another to the east, said Sibut resident Eugene Sangami.

"These elements benefited from the heavy rain to organize their retreat," Sangami said. On Saturday, Brig. Gen. Martin Tumenta Chomou of the 5,000-strong African peacekeeping force said the soldiers were in control of Sibut. But witnesses said the French and African peacekeepers did not enter the town until several hours after the Seleka members fled Sunday.

The rebels' departure was followed by "systematic pillaging" of property belonging to Sibut's Muslim residents, said resident Serge Gredagba said. "These were reprisals for the exactions committed by Seleka against the civilian population," he said.

Violence along religious lines has become common in Central African Republic in recent months. Michel Djotodia, the Seleka leader who became president, was never able to control his fighters, and anger over persistent human rights abuses against Christians led to the creation of an armed Christian militia. Tensions exploded in December when several days of bloodshed left more than 1,000 dead, and Djotodia stepped down last month under intense regional pressure.

A new interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, has been appointed to steer the country toward elections. Brutal attacks continue daily, though. Seleka Col. Mahamat Deya said Sunday that the rebels were likely to return to Sibut after tending to "personal needs" elsewhere. "We are going to stay there to await disarmament," he said.

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