BANGUI Rebels in the Central African Republic on Sunday seized the town of Bambari, the biggest prize yet in a push that has brought rebels to within 400 km (250 miles) of the capital, Bangui.
"Bambari has fallen. It is a disaster," Mylene Abissini, a customs officer resident in the town, told Reuters by telephone.
Local officials said government forces withdrew from the town, the country's third largest and the furthest south the rebel coalition has advanced, after two hours of fighting.
The rebels have extended gains south in recent days, ignoring an order by leaders from across Central Africa for them to withdraw from occupied areas and begin talks with the government in Bangui.
The swift rebel advance has highlighted how fragile the government's hold is on the land-locked nation, which has seen decades of instability since independence from France in 1960.
An unknown number of Chadian soldiers, dispatched to bolster Bangui's weak army, are positioned in Sibut, the last remaining significant town halfway between Bambari and the capital Bangui.
Zones currently under rebel control are rich in diamonds and gold. There are also significant iron ore reserves near Bambari but the mine is not yet operational.
The Seleka rebel coalition is made up of a mix of fighters who complain that the government has failed to stick to a peace deal with previous rebel groups.
(Reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Stephen Powell)
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