INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Leaders of the three main armed rebel groups occupying large areas of the Central African Republic announced a coalition Saturday, ahead of next week's elections and as UN peacekeepers deployed in response to fresh attacks.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for calm and for all sides to work together to ensure credible elections there.
But the rebels' announcement could further fuel tensions already on the rise in the troubled country ahead of a presidential and legislative vote on December 27, where the opposition fears massive electoral fraud.
The armed groups had decided "to combine all of our movements into a single entity, called the Coalition of Patriots for Change or CPC, under a unified command," they wrote in the statement. The CPC invited "all other armed groups to join".
They also urged its members to "scrupulously respect the integrity of the civilian population" and to allow vehicles belonging to the United Nations and to humanitarian groups to circulate freely.
The authorities in Bangui had not yet reacted to the statement Saturday.
The UN mission in the CAR, Minusca, said on Friday that its blue helmet forces were on "maximum alert" to prevent armed groups from disrupting the elections.
According to UN and humanitarian sources on Friday, the rebel militia have secured control of key routes leading to the capital Bangui.
"Reinforcement of the MINUSCA resources, including with air assets, is a response to the violence committed by these armed groups and which also affected Yaloke and Bozoum", towns just over 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Bangui, killing two members of government forces, the UN mission said.
UN appeal for calm
In New York, UN chief Guterres condemned the escalating violence and called on all sides to work towards ensuring conditions conducive to the holding of credible and peaceful elections, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
The UN chief called on all parties to "resolve their differences peacefully... in the interest of the Central African people who have for too long suffered from violence and instability."
The government on Wednesday accused former president Francois Bozize of a "plan to destabilise the country," while the opposition says it fears massive electoral fraud.
Bozize, who recently returned after years in exile, has been barred from running in the election by the country's top court as he had been sought in a international arrest warrant filed by the CAR on charges including murder, arbitrary arrest and torture.
The CAR spiralled into conflict in 2013, when Bozize, was ousted by as president the Seleka, a rebel coalition drawn largely from the Muslim minority.
The coup triggered a bloodbath between the Seleka and so-called "anti-Balaka" self-defence forces, mainly Christian and animist.
France intervened militarily in its former colony and after a transitional period, elections were staged in 2016 and won by president Faustin-Archange Touadera.
Inter-communal fighting has receded in intensity in the last two years, but militia groups hold sway over two-thirds of the country, often fighting over resources.
This new coalition, the CPC, unites all the groups that emerged from the Seleka force with anti-Balaka fighters against Touadera's regime.