C. Africa premier calls for talks with advancing rebels

Central Africa's prime minister on Saturday called on the rebels who have advanced to within striking distance of the capital to negotiate to avoid a blood bath in the coup-prone country.

"The prime minister (Nicolas Tiangaye) asks our brothers of the Seleka (rebel coalition) to get in touch with the national unity government to find a peaceful solution and avoid a blood bath," a spokesman for the premier, Me Crepin Mboli Goumba, told AFP.

The call came a day after Seleka rebels pushed their way to the gates of the capital Bangui following the collapse of a two-month-old peace deal in the mineral-rich but impoverished country that has been plagued by instability since its independence from France in 1960.

The Seleka rebel coalition said it was open to negotiations with African leaders to resolve the standoff, which has sparked concern at the UN Security Council, but rejected any talks with President Francois Bozize.

"If the heads of state of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) ask it, we are ready to meet them and talk, but not to negotiate with General Bozize," Djouma Narkoya, one of the rebel military chiefs, told AFP by telephone.

"How many times have we talked with him? It never leads to anything."

The rebels first launched their offensive in early December, accusing Bozize of not abiding by previous peace deals.

Narkoya also sought to reassure residents of Bangui, where news of the rebel advance on Friday emptied the streets and led scores to try and flee the city.

"Residents of Bangui should remain calm and not be afraid. We have nothing against the population, on the contrary we are here for them. We have something against the military."

And he called for South African troops, which were deployed in the country at Bozize's request after Seleka's lightning advance in December, to leave.

Seleka, an alliance of three rebel movements, first launched an offensive on December 10 in the north of the country, accusing Bozize of not abiding by terms of previous peace agreements.

Facing little resistance from an ill-trained and ill-equipped army, the rebel forces seized a string of key towns, defying UN Security Council calls to stop, before halting within striking distance of Bangui.

They reached a peace deal with the government in early January, under which Tiangaye, an opposition member, became head of a national unity government that was to carry out reforms before national elections next year.

But the deal remained fragile, with the rebels threatening to pull out if their demands were not met. They wanted the release of political prisoners and for foreign soldiers to leave the country.

The rebels at the weekend detained five ministers from the new government, including members of the rebel coalition, to back their demands for concessions from the authorities.

Bozize then offered to release political prisoners and end a night-time curfew in a bid to head off a showdown with the rebels, but Seleka said this was not enough.

The international community has nervously watched the spike in tensions in the country.

The UN Security Council said the new troubles "jeopardise the precarious stability" of Central African Republic, a landlocked nation of 4.4 million people where Bozize seized power in a 2003 coup.

And the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement that she was "deeply concerned" about the worsening situation and warned that her office would investigate and prosecute anyone alleged to have committed crimes.