BANGUI Central African Republic's embattled President Francois Bozize said on Sunday he was ready to share power with the leaders of a rebellion that has swept aside government defences to within striking distance of the capital.
The three-week old onslaught by the rebel alliance Seleka has highlighted the instability of the landlocked former French colony, which remains one of the least developed nations on the planet despite its rich deposits of uranium, gold and diamonds.
"I am ready to form a government of national unity with Seleka to run the country together, because I am a democrat," Bozize told a news conference following a meeting with African Union Chairman Thomas Yayi Boni in the capital Bangui.
He added that he was ready to attend peace talks that are being organised by regional leaders in Libreville, Gabon, "without condition and without delay".
It was unclear if the offer would defuse a crisis that has posed the biggest threat to Bozize's nearly 10 years in charge of the country, nestled in the midst of a turbulent region known for wars and haunted by armed groups.
A spokesman for the rebels said the group would consider Bozize's offer, but added its aim was not to join the existing government.
"I take note of his proposals. We need to meet to study them," Seleka spokesman Eric Massi told France 24 television. He said the rebels also wanted to see what guarantees would be made to them.
"Know that Seleka's aim today is not to enter into a government but to allow the people of Central African Republic to be able to drive the country towards development and self-fulfilment," he said.
Seleka, an alliance of three armed groups, accuses Bozize of failing to honour a 2007 deal under which members who laid down their guns were meant to be paid. It claims to have a force of more than 3,000 men and to have positions within 75 kilometres (45 miles) of Bangui.
The last time rebels reached Bangui was in 2003 during the insurgency that 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 attack.
The streets of the city were largely deserted on Sunday 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 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.
About 1,200 French nationals live in CAR, mostly working for mining firms and aid groups in the capital. The French defence ministry sources said Paris had in recent days boosted its force in CAR to nearly 600 from 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.
The United States said on Thursday it had closed its embassy in Bangui and evacuated its staff.
(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Dakar, Paul-Marin Ngoupana in Bangui, Madjiasra Nako in N'Djamena, and Catherine Bremer in Paris; Editing by Rosalind Russell)