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Americans evacuated from Central African Republic

Sunday, November 3, 2002

BANGUI, Central African Republic -- Americans were evacuated today with coup forces reportedly in control of roads out of the Central African Republic capital. Fears of new fighting ran high in the tense city.

A U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane carried out more than two dozen people -- U.S. Embassy workers, other Americans, and other foreign nationals, Lt. Col. Pat Barnes said at U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

Authorities had estimated there were about 150 Americans in the Central African Republic, most of them missionaries.

A former French colony rich in diamonds, gold and uranium, Central African Republic has weathered nine coups or coup attempts since independence in 1960.

The latest uprising came Oct. 25, when backers of former army chief Francois Bozize launched an offensive that closed to within two blocks of President Ange-Felix Patasse's residence.

Residents said Libyan soldiers sent by Moammar Gadhafi in 2001 to prop up Patasse, and a pro-Patasse rebel group from neighboring Congo, had conducted most of the city's defense.

The Central African Republic's own army is small, restive and poorly equipped.

Bozize's coup forces withdrew from Bangui at midweek, and Patasse's government claimed to have defeated the takeover attempt.

However, travelers arriving in the city and police said Saturday that coup forces appeared to be holding at least some of the four main roads out of Bangui, as well as controlling the western city of Boali.

Patasse-allied fighters loyal to a rebel leader in neighboring Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, were manning checkpoints 5 miles outside the city -- standing between the coup forces and the capital, motorists and police said.

Meanwhile, many among hundreds of thousands of Chad nationals in the country sought refuge Saturday from revenge attacks.

Central African Republic has blamed the coup attempt in part on Chad, where Bozize has spent most of his time since fleeing after another alleged coup attempt in November 2001. Chad denies responsibility.

Chad and Chadian residents of Central African Republic accuse Patasse's presidential guard of killing dozens of Chadian nationals since resecuring the capital.

"We are nothing in this affair, but we are the targets now," one Chadian man, a cattle-breeder, said as he fled Saturday.

Chad cattle-raisers traditionally supply most of Bangui's meat. They stopped supplies in protest of the killings of their countrymen, and meat was running short.

Prices of cassava root and other staples have doubled in the city since Oct. 25.

Residents spoke of skipping meals, and, with banks closed, running out of money to buy increasingly scarce food.

A former key slave reservoir for the slave trade to Europe, Central African Republic has seen its modern history marked by revolts -- first against the colonial French who installed a plantation-style economy to exploit its agricultural wealth, and then against the often brutal and despotic military regimes.

Patasse was elected in 1993 and re-elected in 1999. Increasingly unpopular, he has survived repeated mutinies over unpaid government salaries, labor disputes, and alleged unequal treatment of officers of different ethnic groups within the army.


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