Rebels in the Central African Republic have entered the capital Bangui, the BBC reported Saturday, citing witnesses.
Residents said hundreds of Seleka rebels were now fighting running battles with government troops. The rebels urged government forces to surrender and President Francois Bozize to resign. Seleka began the offensive earlier this week, accusing Bozize of failing to honor a peace deal signed in January, a charge he denies.
Guy Moussa, who lives in the PK12 neighborhood of Bangui, told The Associated Press that hundreds of rebels entered the city around 5 p.m. Saturday.
Rebel spokesman Nelson Ndjadder said Seleka fighters had shot down a government military helicopter and were now heading for the presidential palace. They are also said to have cut off electrical power to parts of the city, having taken control of three power plants in the neighboring town of Boali.
A UN official in southern Bangui said people were in a state of panic but could not confirm the rebels had entered the city.
Earlier Saturday, Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye appealed for talks with the rebels to "avoid a bloodbath."
"The prime minister asks our brothers of the Seleka to get in touch with the national unity government to find a peaceful solution and avoid a blood bath," spokesman Crepin Mboli Goumba told Agence France-Presse.
In a bid to reassure residents of Bangui, where news of the rebel advance has emptied the streets and led scores to try and flee the city, Seleka’s spokesman in Paris, Eric Massis said the leadership was calling on all forces -- both rebel and government -- to maintain "order and discipline".
"No looting, robberies, rapes during the day if clashes happen. For us, the main thing is that our troops be self-disciplined," he said.
Seleka said it was open to negotiations with African leaders to resolve the crisis but rejected any talks with Bozize.
"If the heads of state of the Economic Community of Central African States ask it, we are ready to meet them and talk, but not to negotiate with General Bozize," Djouma Narkoyo, one of the rebel military chiefs, told AFP by telephone.
The rebels joined a power-sharing government in January after talks brokered by regional leaders to end a rebellion they launched last year.