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Rebels near Central African capital

JOHANNESBURG — Rebels on Thursday inched closer to the capital of the Central African Republic, threatening to topple an elected government that has had an unsteady grip on power for nearly a decade.

Thousands of civilians fled cities and towns into dense forest as embassies and humanitarian aid organizations evacuated many of their staff members from the capital, Bangui.

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The rebel group, an amalgamation of several factions fighting under the name ‘‘Seleka Coalition,’’ is trying to remove President Francois Bozize, a military officer who seized power in 2003 and has been elected president twice since.

The rebels accuse Bozize of failing to live up to the terms of peace agreements signed beginning in 2007 to quell several uprisings.

The rebels have trounced government forces in the country’s central and northern regions, taking numerous towns and chopping away at the distance between them and a potential overthrow in Bangui, the seat of one of Africa’s weakest governments.

Central African Republic is sandwiched between some of the most unstable nations on the continent: Chad and South Sudan sit to its north and east, and just south is the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Caught in the middle of this maelstrom are the country’s nearly 5 million civilians, who have been forced to flee their homes for the deep cover of the dense forest dozens of times over the past five decades.

“The population is extremely worried, because the rebel advance has moved quickly in a short matter of time, and the army is moving backwards,’’ said Sylvain Groulx, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Bangui.

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