The government of the perennially unstable Central African Republic on Saturday accused former president Francois Bozize of an attempted coup ahead of next week's elections, after three main rebel groups merged and threatened to march on the capital Bangui.
The newly consolidated rebels occupy a huge chunk of the country and their surprise announcement heightened tensions ahead of the December 27 presidential and legislative elections, where the opposition fears massive electoral fraud.
UN peacekeepers deployed in response to fresh attacks, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for calm and called on all sides to ensure credible elections and peace.
The government said ex-president Bozize was currently near the city of Bossembele, about 150 kilometres (90 miles) northwest of Bangui and intended to march on the capital with his men.
"This is clearly an attempted coup d'etat that the government denounces during this electoral period," said government spokesman Ange-Maxime Kaagui.
"Why take up arms against your countrymen?" President Faustin-Archange Touadera asked at a rally in Bangui, adding that "the national election authority and Constitutional Court have guaranteed that the elections will be held as scheduled".
Kaagui accused Bozize's troops of "cowardly murdering three gendarmes" without giving any details.
But Vladimir Monteiro, a spokesman for the UN's MINUSCA mission in the CAR, said that there had been "no major development" in the rebel position in the past 24 hours.
The three armed groups meanwhile said they had decided "to combine.... into a single entity called the Coalition of Patriots for Change or CPC, under a unified command" and invited "all other armed groups to join".
- UN warning -
They urged 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 11,000-strong MINUSCA force warned Saturday it would "use all means at its disposal including planes to prevent violence."
Bozize, who recently returned after years in exile, has been barred from running in the election by the country's top court, as the CAR had sought him with an international arrest warrant on charges including murder, arbitrary arrest and torture.
The 74-year-old, who came to power in a coup in 2003 before being overthrown in 2013, said on Tuesday that he accepted the court's decision.
The CAR spiralled into conflict when Bozize, a Christian, was ousted as president by the Seleka, a rebel coalition drawn largely from the Muslim minority.
That coup triggered a bloodbath between the Seleka and so-called "anti-Balaka" self-defence forces, mainly Christian and animist.
France sent its army to intervene in its former colony and after a transitional period, elections were staged in 2016 and won by 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.
The new coalition, the CPC, unites all the groups that emerged from the Seleka force with anti-Balaka fighters against Touadera's regime.
- 'Lots of rumours' -
According to UN and humanitarian sources on Friday, the rebel militia have secured control of key routes leading to the capital Bangui.
But CAR expert Hans de Marie Huengoup from the International Crisis Group said the rebels' threat of marching on the capital had to be interpreted carefully for the moment, as there was no knee-jerk reaction in Bangui with rival militias setting up barricades as in the past.
"For the moment, there is a psychosis and lots of rumours," he said.
Taxis were circulating normally in Bangui, apart from areas which were Bozize strongholds, an AFP journalist said.
In New York, UN chief Guterres condemned escalating violence in the CAR and urged 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."