DAMARA, Central African Republic – More than 30 truckloads of troops from Chad line the two-lane highway just outside of Damara, supporting Central African Republic government forces who want to block a new rebel coalition from reaching the capital.
In a display of show, the turbaned fighters from neighboring Chad hold their rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons they threaten to use if the rebels push this far south after taking 10 other towns in the northern part of Central African Republic in only one month.
Gen. Jean Felix Akaga, who heads the 10-nation regional force, says a push on Damara, just 75 kilometers (45 miles) north of the capital, would be "a declaration of war." The rebels who are seeking President Francois Bozize's ouster.
"For us, Damara is the red line that the rebels cannot cross," Akaga said Wednesday. "If they attack Damara, we will attack."
The rebels appear to be holding their positions after taking a string of towns up until Sibut, which is 70 miles (112 kilometers) further north fram Damara.
Back in 2003, troops under Bozize seized the capital amid volleys of machine-gun and mortar fire, and he then dissolved the constitution and parliament. Now a decade later it is Bozize who himself could be ousted from power.
In a bid to avoid being overthrown, he's promising to form a coalition government with rebels and to negotiate without conditions. It's a sign of how serious a threat is now being posed by the rebel groups who call themselves Seleka, which means alliance in the Sango language.
Bozize says there's one point not up for negotiation: him leaving office before his term ends in 2016.
"We can't destroy the country. I don't think that a transition is a good solution for the rebels, for Central African Republic or for the international community," said Cyriaque Gonda, a spokesman for the political coalition behind Bozize.
But mediators for the government and others note the rebels — an alphabet soup of acronyms in French, UFDR, CPJP, FDPC and CPSK — want Bozize gone. And that's the only issue the disparate group seem unified on. Seleka is a shaky alliance that lumps together former enemies.
In September 2011, fighting between the CPJP and the UFDR left at least 50 people dead in the town of Bria and more than 700 homes destroyed.
"Even if they show unity in the military action, we know that they are politically very disunited, the only thing that holds them together is the opposition to the current president," said Roland Marchal, a Paris-based expert on Central African Republic. "If they take control of the capital I think that divisions would appear quickly."
Gonda, who has negotiated on behalf of the government with the rebels, says some of them couldn't even accept sitting together as recently as 2008.
Meanwhile in some parts of this city of 700,000 life continued as normal, while in others the military buildup was evident.
Trucks full of soldiers bounced on rutted roads dotted with shacks where people can charge mobile phones. Police officers stopped vehicles at intersections. Troops from neighboring nations have arrived including about 120 soldiers each from Republic of Congo and Gabon to help stabilize the area between rebel and the government forces.
In the Bimbo neighborhood, traders went about their business, selling everything from leafy greens to meat at roadside stands.
"We don't support what the rebels are doing," said banana farmer Narcisse Ngo, as a young boy played nearby with a monkey corpse for sale along with other meat. "They should be at the table negotiating without weapons. We are all Central Africans."
Bozize, who seized power while the democratically elected president was traveling outside the country, managed to win elections in 2005 but in the years since he has faced multiple low-level rebellions that have shattered security across the northern part of this large but desperately poor country. He won the 2011 election with more than 64 percent of the vote, though the U.S. said the voting was "widely viewed as severely flawed." The U.S. evacuated its diplomats from Bangui last week.
The most prominent among the rebels groups in Seleka is the UFDR, or Union of Democratic Forces for Unity.
Human Rights Watch, which has documented abuses by both government forces and rebel groups operating in the country's north, says the UFDR rebellion "has its roots in the deep marginalization of northeastern CAR, which is virtually cut off from the rest of the country and is almost completely undeveloped."
The rebels, though, also have included some of Bozize's former fighters who helped bring him to power in 2003 but later accused him of failing to properly pay them, among other grievances, Human Rights Watch says.
For the people now caught in the middle, they want life to return to normal.
"Everyone is suffering here — we have nothing to eat," said Daniel Ngakou, 55, as he watched the Chadian troops patrol his hometown of Damara. "The women are searching in the bush all day for food. We just don't know what will happen."
Associated Press writer Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.