Government soldiers in the Central African Republic battled to re-capture a rebel-held city Friday, a military official said, despite regional efforts to seek a peaceful end to the growing crisis.
The military official said the fighting in Bambari, which rebels from the Seleka coalition seized Sunday, was "especially violent", and a humanitarian source said witnesses some 60 kilometres (35 miles) away could hear detonations and heavy weapons fire for several hours.
The new violence came the same day as the Central African Republic's neighbours took steps to tackle the crisis in the chronically unstable nation, where rebels have advanced towards the capital Bangui, stoking local and international alarm.
Foreign ministers in the Economic Community of Central African States were due to discuss the crisis later Friday at a meeting in the Gabonese capital Libreville, which is seen as a potential venue for peace talks.
"The goal is to get to negotiations (between the government and the rebels) by January 10," a source in the Central African Multinational Force (FOMAC) told AFP.
Central African President Francois Bozize's appeals for help from former colonial power France and from the United States have fallen on deaf ears.
"We ask our French cousins and the United States of America, the great powers, to help us to push back the rebels... to allow for dialogue in Libreville to resolve the current crisis," Bozize said at a rally Thursday.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Friday that France had no intention of getting involved in the crisis, and would only intervene to protect its own nationals there.
Fears about the deteriorating security situation have seen Washington evacuate its embassy in Bangui and the United Nations pull out staff. The International Committee for the Red Cross said Friday that it too had evacuated some workers, though it stressed it would continue to provide aid to the growing number of displaced people.
A diplomatic team from FOMAC has begun talks with authorities in Bangui and sent a delegation to the rebel-held strategic town of Ndele in the north to meet members of the rebel coalition Seleka, which launched its offensive on December 10.
The UN has demanded rebels halt their offensive, and urged Bozize's government to ensure the safety of civilians amid fears of a breakdown in law and order in Central Africa, one of the poorest countries on the planet.
Washington said Thursday it had evacuated its embassy and temporarily halted all operations, but the State Department said it had not broken off diplomatic ties with the beleaguered government.
The UN was also pulling out staff in response to the advances by the rebel fighters, which have alarmed residents in Bangui, fearful of looting and clashes.
A coalition of three rebel movements known as Seleka -- or the "alliance" in the Sango language -- has taken a string of towns, including four regional capitals, among them the garrison town and key diamond mining hub of Birao.
The coalition wants the government to fulfil the terms of peace pacts signed in 2007 and 2001, providing for disarmament and social reintegration, including pay. Bozize took power in a 2003 coup and has twice been elected into office.
At another rally organised by his supporters on Friday, about 300 women marched in Bangui to urge Seleka to stop fighting.
"Our country is in danger... People are killing our brothers in the country," said Estelle Loka, a housewife with three children. "France has to defend us."
In 2006, France, which supported Bozize in his rise to power, had lent logistical help and air support to fight off rebels.
While Seleka says it has no plans to move on the capital, a statement last week announcing it had suspended its advance was followed within a day by news of further rebel victories.
On Wednesday, demonstrators angry at France's failure to intervene tore down the flag at the French embassy in Bangui and broke windows at the building.
France has around 250 soldiers based at Bangui airport providing technical support to the FOMAC peacekeeping mission, which consists of up to 500 troops from Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Cameroon.
As the ill-equipped Central African army proved little opposition to the insurgents, Bozize also asked for help from neighbouring Chad which sent in some troops.
FOMAC said Thursday more troops were coming, but there are no details about numbers or timing.