By Paul-Marin Ngoupana
BANGUI (Reuters) - France's military will not defend Central African Republic's government against advancing rebels, French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday, and regional African leaders tried to broker a ceasefire deal.
Insurgents on motorbikes and pickups have driven to within 75 km (45 miles) of the capital Bangui in recent weeks, threatening to end President Francois Bozize's nearly 10 years as leader of the turbulent, resource-rich country.
"If we have a presence, it's not to protect a regime, it's to protect our nationals and our interests and in no way to intervene in the internal business of a country, in this case the Central African Republic," Hollande said, speaking on the sidelines of a visit to a wholesale food market outside Paris.
"Those days are over," he added.
The comments came after a plea from Bozize's government for French military support to stop the SELEKA rebel coalition, which says it will topple the president unless he implements in full a previous peace deal.
CAR Foreign Minister Antoine Gambi declined to comment on Hollande's remarks in a phone interview with Reuters but said the government supported talks with the rebels.
Officials from around central Africa are due to meet in Bangui later on Thursday to open talks with the government and rebels to end the crisis, and a rebel spokesman said fighters temporarily halted their advance for dialogue.
"We will not enter Bangui," Colonel Djouma Narkoyo, the rebel spokesman, told Reuters by telephone. Previous rebel promises to stop advancing have been broken.
The atmosphere remained tense in Bangui the day after anti-rebel protests broke out, and residents were stocking up on food and water in preparation for a rebel push into the city, built up on the banks of a river.
CAR soldiers deployed at strategic sites and French soldiers reinforced security at the embassy after protestors threw rocks at the building on Wednesday.
In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry said protecting foreigners and embassies was the responsibility of CAR authorities.
"This message will once again be stressed to the CAR's charge d'affaires in Paris, who has been summoned this afternoon," a ministry spokesman said.
He also said France condemned the rebels for pursuing hostilities and urged all sides to commit to talks.
France has 250 soldiers in its landlocked former colony as part of a peacekeeping mission and Paris in the past has ousted or propped up governments - including by using airstrikes to defend Bozize against rebels in 2006.
Bozize came to power in a 2003 rebellion that overthrew President Ange-Felix Patasse.
However, France is increasingly reluctant to directly intervene in conflicts in its former colonies. Since coming to power in May, Hollande has promised to end its shadowy relations with former colonies and put ties on a healthier footing.
Some 1,200 French nationals live in CAR, mostly in the capital, according to the French foreign ministry, where they typically work for mining firms or aid groups.
French nuclear energy group Areva mines the Bakouma uranium deposit in CAR's south - France's biggest commercial interest in the country - and uses the uranium to power nuclear plants in France.
The rebel push through a string of towns has highlighted the instability of a country that has remained poor since independence in 1960 despite rich deposits of uranium, gold and diamonds. Average income is barely over $2 a day.
A military source and an aid worker said the rebels had got as far as Damara, 75 km (47 miles) from Bangui, by late afternoon on Wednesday, having skirted Sibut, where some 150 Chadian soldiers had earlier been deployed to try and block a push south by a rebel coalition.
With a government that holds little sway outside the capital, some parts of the country have long endured the consequences of conflicts in troubled neighbors Chad, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo spilling over.
The Central African Republic is one of a number of nations in the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local forces track down the Lords Resistance Army, a rebel group responsible for killing thousands of civilians across four African nations.
(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Jon Boyle)