Rebel forces advancing on the Central African Republic's capital Bangui have been pushed back and the situation is under control, a spokesperson for UN peacekeeping forces said on Sunday, as tensions mount a week before key elections.

Forces loyal to the Central African Republic government have retaken a key town from rebels, the country’s prime minister said on Wednesday, as the UN said peacekeepers would maintain a “robust” posture.

Bossembele, around 150 kilometres northwest of the capital Bangui on a vital road artery, had been retaken on Tuesday by “elements of our armed forces and the allies”, Firmin Ngrebada wrote on Twitter.

By “allies”, the CAR government usually refers to Rwandan troops and Russian paramilitaries.

Bossembele was one of the jumping-off points for armed rebel groups in an offensive launched against the capital in December, as they banded together under the name Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) to try to prevent the re-election of President Faustin Archange Touadera.

Eight years into a civil war, rebels control around two-thirds of the CAR’s territory, with many districts unable to hold the 27 December ballot when Touadera was re-elected in the first round.

But the presence of the 12 000-strong, well-armed and -equipped UN peacekeeping force, MINUSCA, has kept the CPC far from the capital, alongside hundreds of Rwandan troops and Russian paramilitaries sent to shore up the country’s ragged army.

In fact, the UN troops “had and still have forces in Bossembele”, which managed to “block attempts to move on towards Bangui” along the highway, MINUSCA spokesperson Abdoulaziz Fall told AFP.

The situation in the town remains precarious however, with “armed elements wearing civilian clothes, not necessarily in the town… (and) sometimes mixed in among the population”, he added.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres later on Wednesday called on Central African authorities to initiate a “meaningful and inclusive political dialogue” with opposition and armed groups that have renounced violence.

The UN “reiterates that MINUSCA will maintain a robust posture to implement its mandate, including the protection of civilians”, Guterres said in a statement.

With three major roads and the CAR’s natural resources under rebel control, prices have risen in Bangui as freight from neighbouring countries is blocked, with the UN saying rebels are attempting to “throttle” the capital.

Some 1 500 trucks are stuck at the country’s western border with Cameroon, and the army offensive under way since last month is aimed at restoring road traffic.

The UN says more than one-third of the CAR’s population, or 1.9 million people, endure high levels of food insecurity in one of the world’s poorest countries.

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