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Tuesday, 12 February, 2002, 18:04 GMT
Libya's presence in Bangui questioned
By Lucy Jones in Bangui
Libyan forces in the Central African Republic's capital are facing growing opposition from local residents.
They say that they want the foreign soldiers to leave Bangui because the Libyans do not serve their interests.
The troops were first deployed in Bangui to defend the country's president Mr Ange Felix Patasse, following a failed coup attempt last May by disgruntled CAR soldiers.
Western diplomats say that about 300 soldiers and military advisors stayed on to guard the presidential residence and occasionally the radio and television stations and airport.
Mr Patasse sought assistance from the Libyans again in November last year when the dismissed army chief, General Francois Bozize, captured the north of Bangui.
Libyan tanks bombed general Bozize positions and restored peace in the country.
However, while some the capital's inhabitants admit that the Libyan presence prevented an outbreak of civil war in the country, many now would like to see the back of the foreign troops.
"We resent the influence Gaddafi is having on our president and on our country," says head of the largest coalition of opposition parties, Paul Bellet.
"Our people were buried alive in their homes during the Libyan bombing," he complained.
Music and drink
Sheltering from the sun under tents pitched outside the presidential residence, the soldiers from Libya blast music from their armed pick-up trucks.
When they are not patrolling the capital, they sip drinks imported from Tripoli at luxury villas used by visiting heads of state.
"We don't mind being here", says one soldier from under a tent.
"The Central African Republic has lots of problems such as Aids, malaria and war - but they don't affect us," he adds.
"We just miss our families," says another soldier.
At the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped in Bangui, a carpenter models tiny wooden legs for children injured by rebel and loyalist shells last year.
Children who have been fitted with legs are taught to walk again.
"We have witnessed an increase in the number of people admitted to the centre since May last year," says Ms Marie Guret, the director of the Centre.
The Libyan forces are directly accountable to the president's closest advisors, which is causing resentment in the CAR's army.
Military sources tell me that Mr Patasse's popularity is fading within the country's army.
The presence of Libyan soldiers in Bangui is also creating a rift between the Central African Republic and Chad.
"Chadians are always wary of Libya's intervention in the CAR, especially as they have oil pipeline in the south of the country, near the border with the CAR," a Western diplomat, in Bangui who wants to remain anonymous tells me.
The governments of Gabon and the US have also expressed unease with Libya's increased involvement in CAR.
The independent media regularly vilifies the Libyan troops.
"Central Africans are asking themselves: what have the Libyans done for us?" asks Le Citoyen's editorial.
"Libya has a dream for an Islamic republic in Africa but we do not share that dream," it comments.
Local journalists say that Libyan officials have tried to bribe them with trips to Tripoli, promising them meetings with Colonel Gaddafi.
They claim that they are asked to write laudatory articles about the Libyan troops in an attempt to change public opinion.
"Most people see the Libyan troops as only here to protect the president, says a journalist with Le Confident.
"The harassment of civilians by soldiers continues - there are still bandits in the country - so what do the Libyans offer the average citizen?" he asks.
But Libyan officials say troops have been sent to assist Patasse as the Central African Republic is a member of the Community of Coast and Sahara States (CENSAD), a regional group of countries, established in Tripoli in 1998.
CENSAD agreed last December to send peace-keepers to CAR and Sudan which presently presides over CENSAD has offered to lead the force.
Burkina Faso, Mali and Libya have promised to donate troops.
But other regional organisations - including the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) prefer a diplomatic dialogue to the deployment of peace-keepers at the moment.
They encourage more dialogue between CAR's opposing factions.
But Libyan officials say until a peacekeeping mission is deployed in the Central African Republic their troops will remain.
"We want to improve the security in the country," says a Libyan embassy official in Bangui.
"If we leave, there would be a coup tonight."
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