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On tour at Central Africa's presidential palace with rebels

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

In Bangui's presidential palace, where Francois Bozize ruled the Central African Republic for 10 years, rebel General Arda Hakouma enjoys posing with one foot on the statue of a lion after seizing the capital.

A wall panel reads: "To Army General Francois Bozize, with God we will gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies. Psalm 60 2:12."

Hakouma, a tall man in his thirties, laughs. "There was no victory. He was defeated. The victory is us."

The rebel general led troops of the Seleka coalition in their offensive on the capital, which fell last Sunday. When they took the presidential palace, Bozize had already fled.

The palace has been searched, vandalised and turned inside out, but there is no trace of conflict on the walls. There was no resistance. "It took only a few minutes. The GP (presidential guard) fled straight away, with the first shots," Hakouma said as he provided a guided tour this week.

A solitary tank stands guard at the entrance to the palace. Another, inside the compound, is parked next to a dozen luxury cars.

Part of the premises remain inaccessible. "We fear that this area is mined. We have asked for advice from our French friends, who have promised to come," said Colonel Abdel Aziz, Hakouma's deputy.

But it is possible to enter the "inner sanctum", Bozize's personal office in the middle of the building. The cloaked windows do not give on to the outside of the palace. "A security measure, clearly," one soldier says.

-- A 'democratic' armchair --

The office is an utter mess, with drawers opened and thrown on to the floor, and magazines lying amid heaps of official papers. There is also a notebook entitled "Treasury of the KNK" (Bozize's presidential party Kwa Na Kwa, or "Work, nothing but work"). And there are documents classified "secret" or "top secret".

The president's armchair is comfortable, but no more than that. "It's not for me," says the general, refusing to sit there, but asking one of his men to do so. "We have come to bring democracy," he explains.

Everywhere, people are walking on files and papers and smashed-up furniture scattered over the ground. Anything of any worth has been taken, though many gifts and sculptures remain because they did not interest the looters.

In a second building, where the ousted president used to rest, a number of the many presents he received were also left, some still wrapped up.

Next come the private suites, notably including the master bedroom. "Before, we slept in the bush but I don't want to sleep in this bed. I know that Bozize slept in it," Colonel Abdel Aziz says.

General Hakouma, for his part, regrets that he was unable "to capture Bozize alive".

Before moving on, he recalls the rebel offensive nearly a week ago against the Central African army and South African troops stationed in the country.

"It was at Boali, about 70 kilometres (45 miles) from Bangui, that the fighting was hardest against the South Africans. I lost six men, the South Africans 35," he said. South African President Jacob Zuma announced a death toll of 13 troops.

Hakouma says that the rebel chief of general staff, General Issa Issaka, was wounded in the leg leaving Hakouma to take up the leadership of rebel forces for a final assault that lasted "scarcely two hours" once the "South Africans were no longer fighting."

Asked if he is proud to be the man who took Bangui, the general puts it down to "destiny".

"God willed it," he says. "Soon I'm going to organise a big ceremony to thank all my men. It is thanks to them that we overthrew Bozize."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130329/tour-at-central-africas-presidential-palace-rebels