- Government troops backed by the French army have retaken the northern Central African Republic town of Birao a month after it was captured by forces of the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR), presidential press director Lord Esaie Nganamokoi said today.
"The army is in full control," he told the UN media 'IRIN'.
The army's next objective, he said, would be to retake the northern towns of Ouadda-Djallé, Ouadda and Sam-Ouandja, seized by UFDR forces when they began their insurrection on 31 October. After these towns fell, UFDR said its next target would be the mining town of Bria, 650 kilometres northeast of Bangui, the capital.
Stunned by the rapid fall of these towns, the government appealed to France, its ally and former colonial power, for help. The government of the Central African Republic said France provided logistical support to the army in the drive to retake Birao, a town of 30,000 residents.
The army is now conducting mopping-up operations in the town, which lies on the major trade route to Chad and Sudan and thus is vital to the region's commerce. A businessman in Bria, Abdel Karim Meyaki, told 'IRIN' on Monday that army troops were moving towards Sam-Ouandja.
However, a spokesman for the UFDR denied on Tuesday it had lost Birao. "General Damane Zakaria, our chief of staff, is still in Birao," Diego Albator Yao, General Zakaria's spokesman, said. "French soldiers and government troops are at the airport and are surrounded by our men."
Mr Yao said the UFDR had no intention of attacking the French, as long as they did not interfere in the movement's internal affairs. However, he added, "We are going to react militarily if we have any indication that French troops are interfering in the crisis by attacking our positions."
Despite the fighting, Mr Yao said the UFDR was still ready to talk to the government. "We are ready to go to a negotiating table with the government to settle our domestic problems," Mr Yao said.
The movement is asking for power-sharing, claiming that President François Bozizé's government has ostracised last parts of the population, in particular the Muslim north of the Central African Republic.
Meanwhile, in the northwest of the country the UFDR, headed by Michel Djotodia, claims to have captured the town of Ndélé.
A high-ranking army officer and personal adviser in the entourage of President Bozizé confirmed this, but said the army was still trying to dislodge the enemy. The rebels' capture of Ndélé, capital of Bamingui-Bangoran Prefecture, followed the arrest six weeks ago of two leading UFDR officials in the West African nation of Benin.
At Bangui's request, the Beninese authorities arrested Mr Detodia and his spokesman Abakar Saboune. They are expected to be returned to Bangui.
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