WASHINGTON – The State Department has closed its embassy in the Central African Republic and ordered the ambassador and his diplomatic team to leave the country as rebels there continue to advance and violence escalates, U.S. officials said Thursday.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, said that at the State Department's request, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had directed U.S. Africa Command to evacuate U.S. citizens and designated foreign nationals from the U.S. Embassy in Bangui "to safe havens in the region."
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. Embassy had temporarily suspended operations, but not diplomatic relations with the country.
"This decision is solely due to concerns about the security of our personnel and has no relation to our continuing and long-standing diplomatic relations" with the Central African Republic, Ventrell said in a statement.
Shortly after announcing the evacuation Thursday, the State Department warned U.S. citizens against travel to the Central African Republic, saying it could not "provide protection or routine consular services to U.S. citizens" and urging Americans who have decided to stay to "review their personal security situation and seriously consider departing" on commercial flights. Four days earlier, the State Department had issued a warning recommending against travel to the country and authorizing its non-emergency personnel in Bangui to leave.
U.S. officials said about 40 people were evacuated on an U.S. Air Force plane bound for Kenya. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the details of the operation.
The departure of Ambassador Laurence Wohlers and his staff comes as the president of the Central African Republic on Thursday urgently called on France and other foreign powers to help his government fend off rebels who are quickly seizing territory and approaching this capital city, but French officials declined to offer any military assistance.
Rebels have seized at least 10 towns across the sparsely populated north, and residents in the capital of 600,000 people fear insurgents could attack at any time.
The developments suggest the Central African Republic could be on the brink of another violent change in government, something not new to the impoverished country. The current president, Francois Bozize, himself came to power nearly a decade ago in the wake of a rebellion.
Speaking to crowds in Bangui, Bozize pleaded with foreign powers to do what they could. He pointed in particular to France, Central African Republic's former colonial ruler.
About 200 French soldiers are already in the country, providing technical support and helping to train the local army, according to the French defense ministry.
French President Francois Hollande said Thursday that France wants to protect its interests in Central African Republic and not Bozize's government. Paris is encouraging peace talks between the government and the rebels.
President Barack Obama late last year sent about 100 U.S. special operations forces to the region — including Central African Republic — to assist in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the fugitive rebel leader of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army. Forces have been hunting the elusive warlord in Central African Republic, South Sudan and Congo.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.