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French Troops Move to Quell Central African Republic Revolt

May 19, 1996

BANGUI, Central African Republic (AP) _ French troops moved into downtown Bangui on Sunday to help quell an army uprising that left at least four people dead and terrorized the capital with machine-gun and rocket fire.

Civilians cowered on the floors of their homes as troops demanding control of the national armory fought with presidential guards in the streets. The mutinous soldiers took hostage at least six people with government ties.

National radio Sunday night said consultations were under way with army representatives to try to arrange talks Monday with the government. There was no word on whether the rebels would agree to attend.

In Paris, Foreign Ministry spokesman Christophe Bouchard said the French soldiers were only protecting the 2,500 French citizens in Bangui and did not plan to intervene in the conflict. Witnesses said French troops had taken some of them to French military headquarters for safety.

But the presence of French troops on the streets drove rebels out of the downtown area they had held Saturday, and on Sunday French soldiers with tanks were stationed outside government buildings and along key roads across the city.

Hospitals reported that two civilian and two rebels had died in the fighting. At least 50 civilians were wounded.

``We’re trying to be calm, but it’s becoming more and more difficult,″ Bangui resident Didier Marasico said in a telephone interview with the French television network LCI.

An American working in the Central African Republic said he’s been staying at home for fear of getting caught up in the violence.

Soldiers seized Graham Owen’s car as he went to work at a World bank-sponsored training project in Banqui, his wife, Rose-Marie, told The Associated Press by telephone from their home in Plantation, Fla.

Mrs. Owen said her 40-year-old husband, whom she has contacted by phone, was not threatened by the troops.

The uprising, which began Saturday, was the second in two months in this landlocked, impoverished country that still bears the legacy of decades of corrupt dictatorships.

President Felix-Ange Patasse was elected three years ago in the country’s first multiparty vote, but is now under fire for failing to clear away the economic problems left by his predecessors _ problems that have led to delays in paying soldiers and civil servants.

Last month’s three-day mutiny, which killed nine people, was over late paychecks. After French soldiers helped put down the uprising, Patasse paid January-March salaries and granted amnesty to the mutineers.

Those taking part in the latest rebellion say they are owed April’s pay, but their main demand is control of the central armory in a Bangui military barracks.

After the April uprising, Patasse placed control of the armory in the hands of his presidential guard, angering troops who broke into it Saturday and seized heavy weapons and ammunition.

The mutineers, who witnesses said numbered about 200, fired a rocket at the national radio station Sunday in an attempt to drive out presidential guards. The station remained in government hands.

There was no word on the whereabouts of the six hostages, who included the army chief of staff, the energy minister and the father of the prime minister.

Defense Minister Jean Mette-Yapende went on national radio and urged the mutineers to enter negotiations with the government. But the fighting only intensified.

``The rebellion is much stronger than a month ago,″ resident Francois Angelini told French TV.

About 1,300 French soldiers are stationed in the Central African Republic, which became independent from France in 1960 and has since suffered under a series of military and civilian dictators.

The most notorious was Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who staged a coup in 1966, proclaimed himself emperor and spent millions supporting his royal lifestyle until he was ousted in a French-backed coup in 1979.

After eight years in exile, Bokassa returned to the country and was tried on charges of murder, torture and cannibalism stemming from his time in power. He was convicted and sentenced to death but went free in 1993 when Gen. Andre Kolingba, the military ruler at the time, celebrated his 12th anniversary in power by releasing most of the country’s prisoners.

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