(Reuters) - Rebels in Central African Republic seized control of the country's riverside capital Bangui on Sunday, forcing President Francois Bozize to flee into neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, government officials said.
At least six South African soldiers were killed in clashes with the rebels, a Reuters witness said. A United Nations source said the force, in the country to train the army along with hundreds of regional peacekeepers, was preparing to leave.
The Seleka rebel coalition resumed hostilities this week in the mineral-rich former French colony, vowing to oust Bozize, whom it accused of breaking a January peace agreement to integrate its fighters into the army.
The landlocked country, racked by rural rebellions for more than a decade, has extensive and unprotected borders and the rebel advance added to instability in the heart of Africa.
As the loose coalition of rebels - some of them former rivals - tightened their grip on Bangui, it was unclear who would replace Bozize or whether the power-sharing government of Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye would remain in place.
"The rebels control the town," said presidency spokesman Gaston Mackouzangba. "I hope there will not be any reprisals."
Government spokesman Crepin Mboli-Goumba said the Seleka rebels controlled all the strategic locations in the city.
A presidential advisor, who asked not to be named, said Bozize had crossed the Oubangi river into Congo on Sunday morning as rebel forces headed for the presidential palace. Bozize had seized power in a 2003 military coup.
A United Nations official in Congo said Kinshasa's government asked the U.N. refugee agency to help move 25 members of Bozize's family out of the border town of Zongo on Sunday.
Congo's Information Minister Lambert Mende told Reuters President Bozize was not among the family members who arrived in Zongo and said his arrival in the country had not been announced to Congolese authorities.
"The palace has just fallen. We have the palace," Eric Massi, a Seleka spokesman, told Reuters by telephone from Paris.
SOUTH AFRICANS ATTACKED
The rebels fought their way to the northern suburbs of the riverside capital late on Saturday before an overnight lull in the fighting. But residents said heavy weapons fire erupted across Bangui around 8 a.m. (2.00 a.m. ET).
Massi said the rebels had broken through a line of South African soldiers during their push into the city.
Around 400 South African troops are currently in the country. "I saw the bodies of six South African soldiers. They had all been shot. Their vehicles were also destroyed. Other South African soldiers came to recover the bodies," a Reuters witness said.
Regional peacekeeping sources said the South Africans had fought alongside the Central African Republic's army on Saturday.
"I cannot confirm that we were fighting alongside (the CAR army) but we fell under attack and we defended ourselves and we repulsed the attackers," South African army spokesman Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga told private South African news channel eENCA.
Reached by Reuters, he said he could give no further details of the incident, saying it was an "operational matter."
A source with the United Nations in Bangui said South African troops were preparing to leave the country.
"They took substantial losses and have asked for French support to load their troops and take off," said the source, adding she had heard anywhere between two and 12 South African soldiers had been killed.
France, which already has some 250 soldiers stationed in the Central African Republic, sent in another company of 150 troops to secure Bangui's international airport, a diplomatic source said on Saturday.
Seleka, a loose umbrella group of insurgents, fought its way to the gates of the capital late last year after accusing Bozize of failing to honor an earlier peace deal to give its fighters cash and jobs in exchange for laying down their arms.
The Seleka rebels received several key ministerial portfolios under a power-sharing agreement specified by January's peace deal, and one of their leaders was named deputy prime minister in charge of national defense.
However, rebels and opposition figures accused Bozize at the time of tampering with the agreed deal to secure important ministerial posts for his loyalists.
The violence is the latest in a series of rebel incursions, clashes and coups that have plagued the nation since its independence from France in 1960.
(Additional by Daniel Flynn and David Lewis in Dakar, and Ange Aboa in Lome; writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Philippa Fletcher)