WASHINGTON – The Obama administration refused Monday to support the Central African Republic's recently ousted leader and declined to call the overthrow of Francois Bozize this weekend a coup, part of a last-ditch effort to rescue a political agreement to restore calm to the impoverished, rebellion-wracked nation.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. has no information concerning Bozize's whereabouts or intentions, despite the claim by the government of neighboring Cameroon that the 66-year-old former military chief was seeking "'temporary" refuge in its territory. Ventrell said the U.S. was focused on salvaging peace by keeping alive an accord between the Seleka rebels and a government run by the country's prime minister, Nicolas Tiangaye.
The rebels' weekend invasion of the capital, Bangui, came two months after they signed a peace agreement that would have let Bozize serve until 2016. That deal unraveled in recent days, prompting the insurgents' advance into Bangui, where French troops moved to secure the airport.
Michel Djotodia, one of the leaders of the rebel coalition, said he considers himself to be the new head of state. Another rebel leader, Nelson N'Djadder, said he does not recognize Djotodia as president.
"There's a way to keep the integrity of the Libreville agreement if the prime minister's government were allowed ... to run the government day-to-day," Ventrell told reporters.
"My understanding is the position of president wasn't necessarily a day-to-day governing position," Ventrell added. "It's clear now, though, that they've appointed somebody else and are trying to take the power. And that's what the concern is."
While political talks take place, he said, the U.S. is urging calm and a resumption of basic services such as water and electricity in Bangui. He said neither the rebels nor the government have lived up to previous commitments in a country that has suffered instability since obtaining independence from France in 1960.
Bozize himself came to power in a coup a decade ago.
Ventrell, however, declined to call the rebels' overthrow of Bozize on Sunday a "coup." Such a declaration would make it impossible for the U.S. to provide military or economic support for the government. In any case, Washington only planned to provide $300,000 in security assistance to the country this year. That's down from $156.9 million, mostly humanitarian aid, in 2009.
"In terms of whether this is a coup or not, that's something that we're reviewing," Ventrell said. "There's always a legal review before the U.S. makes that determination, and we'll continue to look at it. But we do condemn the actions over the weekend."
He said the U.S. was reviewing all aid programs to the Central African Republic as well.
Perhaps more significant for the U.S. is the possibility that the political instability will affect the hunt for African warlord Joseph Kony. Bozize was a strong supporter of African efforts to dismantle Kony's Lord's Resistance Army.
Some 3,350 African troops are currently deployed against the Lord's Resistance Army in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
The U.S. has about 70 to 80 anti-Kony military advisers in the Central African Republic, Ventrell said.
"There are some American trainers in the eastern part of the country, way over in the corner, much closer to the Congo and South Sudan," he said. "Our understanding is that they're very far away from what's happening in Bangui and they continue to be there."
The U.S. embassy in Bangui has been closed since December.