By Paul Marin Ngoupana
BANGUI (Reuters) - Rebels in Central Africa Republic reached the outskirts of the capital Bangui on Friday after seizing the nearby town of Damara, rebels and military officials said, a day after the insurgents rejected a peace offer from the president.
A rebel spokesman said they had moved past Damara, some 75 km (50 miles) from Bangui, and had advanced to within 22 kilometres of the riverside capital, which some of their men had already infiltrated.
In Bangui, panicked residents ran through the streets, shops closed and schools sent home pupils after national radio announced the rebel advance.
"Our objective is to take Bangui today," Nelson Ndjadder, spokesman for the CPSK faction of the Seleka rebel coalition, told Reuters by telephone from Paris. "We have 2,000 men on the ground and some have slipped into the capital."
Central Africa Republic has rich deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium but remains one of the least developed countries in the world. A long series of rebellions have crippled the country and conflicts in neighbouring Chad, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo have also undermined peace efforts.
A regional peacekeeping force from neighbouring central African states had established Damara as a 'red line' for the Seleka not to cross when they bore down on the capital last year.
However, residents in Damara said the peacekeepers had simply stood aside to allow the rebels to take Damara on Friday.
"The regional central African forces who were here ran away. Only the Chadians remained and they held talks with the rebels," Bienvenue Yakesse, an inhabitant of Damara, told Reuters by telephone. "The rebels now occupy the whole town."
Seleka resumed hostilities this week, accusing President Francois Bozize of breaking a January peace deal. Bozize, who seized power in a 2003 coup backed by Chad, was outside the country on a visit to South Africa.
France, which is fighting Islamist rebels in northern Mali, has drawn down its troops in Central African Republic from 600 to less than half that number.
A senior official with the regional peacekeeping force said their mandate did not allow them to intervene unless attacked.
"There is not much resistance from the Central African army. Bangui could fall in a couple of hours," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
"EVERYTHING IS CLOSED"
Presidency spokesman Gaston Mackouzangba confirmed the rebels had clashed with Central African Republic troops in Damara but could not provide further details.
"The rebels have crossed the red line to enter Damara," he told Reuters by telephone. "The president has never closed the door to dialogue."
A statement from the South African presidency said Bozize paid President Jacob Zuma a "courtesy call" in Pretoria on Friday but gave no detail on the content of their talks. South Africa has some 400 peacekeepers stationed in Central African Republic.
A government minister, who asked not to be identified, said Bozize had instructed his cabinet to seek safety.
"Everything is closed here," Saint Hardy, an accountant in Bangui, told Reuters by telephone, saying army units were rushing to the city's outskirts to face the rebels. "If they took Damara at midday they will be in Bangui quickly because there are no other towns on the road."
Military officials said the rebels had also captured Bozize's hometown of Bossangoa, some 300 km (190 miles) from Bangui, one of the largest towns in the country's north and a barracks for the republican guard.
"It is serious. Bossangoa has fallen," said one senior Central African Republic defence official. "Our men tried to resist but without success."
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn in Dakar and Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Editing by Bate Felix)