BANGUI (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African Republic could enter the capital Bangui as early as "tonight, or tomorrow morning" if President Francois Bozize refuses their conditions for peace talks, a rebel spokesman said on Sunday.
The three-week-old Seleka rebellion has advanced to within 75 km (45 miles) of Bangui, posing the most serious threat yet to Bozize's nearly 10 years in charge of the turbulent and resource-rich former French colony.
African Union Chairman Thomas Yayi Boni is due to meet Bozize on Sunday to lay the groundwork for peace talks in Gabon with Seleka, an alliance of three armed groups that accuses Bozize of failing to honour a 2007 deal under which members who laid down their guns were meant to be paid.
Seleka said it is demanding direct talks with Bozize along with guarantees of safety for its generals.
"We are waiting to see what comes out of today's meeting between Bozize and ... Yayi Boni before we make a final decision," rebel spokesman Nelson Ndjadder said by telephone from France. "We could march into Bangui tonight or tomorrow morning," he said.
Ndjadder said the rebel force numbered around 3,000 and was growing as new fighters joined during a swift advance from the country's northwest since early December.
The rebel onslaught has highlighted the instability of a country that has remained poor and turbulent since independence from France in 1960, despite rich deposits of uranium, gold and diamonds.
The last time rebels reached Bangui was in 2003 during the insurgency that initially swept Bozize to power.
FEARING THE WORST
Residents in the ramshackle riverside capital have either fled or stockpiled food and water in their homes in preparation for a rebel onslaught.
The streets of the city were largely deserted on Sunday morning save for military patrols and a trickle of churchgoers. Youths carrying machetes had set up makeshift barricades along main roads during a driving ban imposed overnight.
"There is a great deal of fear here now, and people are hiding their belongings and seeking safety," said Genael Dongonbo, a student at Bangui University who hails from the northern town of Bambari. "I'd also like to leave, but I have no money and the rebels have already seized my town."
With a government that holds little sway outside the capital, some parts of the country have long endured the consequences of conflicts spilling over from troubled neighbours Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local forces try to track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group which has killed thousands of civilians across four nations.
Regional neighbours agreed on Friday to send more troops to shore up CAR's army after a string of defeats this month, and after French President Francois Hollande rejected a plea for Western military help made by Bozize last week.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS)already has more than 500 peacekeepers in CAR. Officials did not say how many more would be added or when they would arrive.
The United States said on Thursday it had closed its embassy in Bangui and evacuated its staff.
About 1,200 French nationals live in CAR, mostly working for mining firms and aid groups in the capital. French defence ministry sources said Paris had sent 150 troops to Bangui late on Friday to bolster an existing 250-strong deployment safeguarding French citizens.
French nuclear energy group Areva mines the Bakouma uranium deposit in CAR's south - France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.