C.Africa forces seize stronghold of ex-president Bozize

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Bangui (Central African Republic) (AFP)

Pro-government forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) on Wednesday seized a stronghold of former president Francois Bozize, who was accused in December of plotting a coup, Prime Minister Firmin Ngrebada said.

"I hail the capture of the town of Bossangoa by our forces and allies today," he said on Facebook, referring to a key pro-Bozize town 280 kilometres (175 miles) north of the capital Bangui.

"Allies" is a term used by CAR's government for Russian paramilitaries and Rwandan troops who are supporting the beleaguered authorities against rebel groups.

"Never again will bandits disturb people in this part of the country," Ngrebada vowed.

A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said "fighting is still ongoing" but "resistance has been broken, the enemy is fleeing."

In mid-December, six rebel groups united to launch an offensive against President Faustin Archange Touadera, just over a week before presidential and legislative elections.

The government said the rebels had acted in concert with Bozize, who seized power in 2003 and was ousted a decade later -- an act that sparked a civil war along sectarian lines.

Russia and Rwanda flew in military personnel to shore up the CAR's poorly- equipped armed forces, which are also backed by a 12,000 UN force, MINUSCA.

The rebels attacked a string of towns in January and twice came close to the capital, but the government and its allies went on the counter-offensive.

A string of towns -- Boda, Boali, Bossembele, Bossemptele, Yaloke and Beloko -- have been recaptured and on February 16, Bangui's road lifeline to neighbouring Cameroon was reopened.

The following day, the government said it had "completely liberated" Bambari, CAR's fifth biggest town, located in the centre of the country, and captured "numerous prisoners."

- Shadow of Bozize -

Bozize fled abroad after being toppled in 2013.

He returned in late 2019, stoking fears that the troubled nation would be plunged once more into a full-fledged conflict as elections loomed on the horizon.

Violence remains endemic in a country where two-thirds of the territory is controlled by militia groups.

Touadera won re-election in the first round of the polls, according to official figures, but the turnout was just 35 percent as many voters were unable to cast their ballot.

Bozize denies giving any support to the six rebel groups, who teamed up in December under the name of the Coalition of Patriots for Change, or CPC.

On January 4, the government launched an inquiry into him for "rebellion."

Thousands of people have died in the CAR since 2013 and more than a quarter of the population of 4.9 million have fled their homes.

Of these, 675,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries.