BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) — A coalition of rebel groups that signed a peace accord with the Central African Republic government two months ago is now threatening to take up arms again if a list of demands is not met by Wednesday, a move that threatens to derail efforts to stabilize the country.
The ultimatum came as the rebels also decided to hold back their five government ministers from returning to the capital following weekend talks about the peace process in the town of Sibut. The rebel coalition known as Seleka first began taking control of about a dozen towns across the country's north back in December. They later signed a peace accord in January following negotiations that were mediated by neighboring nations.
Col. Sylvain Bordas, a spokesman for the rebel group, said late Sunday that it was stepping up the pressure on the government to fulfill the promises made under the peace accord. "We will not hesitate to take up arms again," he said, giving President Francois Bozize's government a deadline of 72 hours to comply with their demands.
The rebels say they are seeking the release of political prisoners and the integration of rebel forces into the national army. Seleka also wants South African soldiers who have been on assignment in Central African Republic to leave the country.
The new threat came hours after the talks were held in the town of Sibut, 185 kilometers (114 miles) north of Bangui, to discuss the peace process and conditions for the disarmament of rebel fighters.
Mediator Noel Leonard Essongo criticized the latest setback, saying that "negotiations are not done with ultimatums." Michel Djotodia, a Seleka leader who now serves as a vice prime minister and defense minister under the country's unity government, said the demands came from fighters on the ground.
"I am not the one who decided this — there are units who have made this decision," he said. "It a type of pressure. They want the head of state to respect the terms of the accord that was signed," Djotodia said.
He is one of the five government ministers that Seleka retained on Sunday. Despite the threats, the rebel coalition has not yet withdrawn from the fragile national unity government. Central African Republic has suffered numerous attempted power grabs over the years, though last December's advance marked the most significant threat to Bozize's government since the president took control following a 2003 rebellion.
The rebels swept through the northern half of the country in a matter of weeks, claiming control of a number of strategic towns. The crisis prompted Chad, Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Gabon to send soldiers to Central African Republic.
The rebel fighters threatened to advance on the capital of Bangui if Bozize did not step aside, though they later agreed to a peace deal that allows him to remain in office until his current term expires in 2016.
The accord, though, has been shaky since the start since the government already had signed previous agreements with the very same rebels only to see those unravel. The unity between the various factions is also unclear: Seleka includes members from four separate groups, some of whom have previously fought one another.
In a worrisome escalation last week, the rebels seized control of two towns in the country's southeast. Gambo and Bangassou, are located 600 and 700 kilometers (370 and 430 miles) respectively from the capital.
Government spokesman Crepin Mboli-Goumba called the attacks "absolutely incomprehensible" given the peace accords that were signed in January.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.