Central African Republic's embattled President Francois Bozize appealed Thursday for French and US help to halt a rebel advance as regional troops moved in to secure the capital in an escalating crisis in one of the world's poorest countries.
The United Nations is pulling out its staff and the United States has warned its citizens to leave in the face of the deteriorating security situation as rebel fighters close in on Bangui, creating alarm among residents.
But former colonial power France, whose embassy in Bangui came under attack on Wednesday by demonstrators angry at the lack of French help, vowed it would not intervene in the country, which has a chequered history of coups and brutal rule.
"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 told thousands of supporters at a rally in Bangui.
"There is no question of allowing them to kill Central Africans, of letting them destroy houses and pillage, and holding a knife to our throats to demand dialogue," said Bozize, who himself seized power in a coup in 2003.
"It is a plot against the Central African Republic, a plot against its people."
Organisers said 10,000 government supporters converged on central Bangui which a rally leader described as "our Tahrir Square".
The protesters blew whistles and waved banners reading "Say No to war" and "No to rebellions".
The rebel coalition known as Seleka has seized four regional capitals, including a diamond mining hub, since its fighters took up arms on December 10 but said it had no plans to move on the capital.
President Francois Hollande said France would not use its troops stationed in the country to interfere in the conflict, which is escalating despite both sides apparently agreeing to hold talks in Libreville.
"If we are present, it is not to protect a regime, it is to protect our nationals and our interests, and in no way to intervene in the internal affairs of a country," Hollande said. "Those days are gone."
A French foreign ministry spokesman said however that Paris "condemns the continued hostility by the rebel groups" and that the crisis should be resolved through dialogue.
In Bangui, a French national said the population feared looting and a breakdown of order. "It would not take much for things to explode," she said, but added that there was no immediate cause for concern.
France has around 250 soldiers based at Bangui airport providing technical support to a peacekeeping mission run by the central African bloc ECCAS.
Since the end of colonisation in the 1960s, French troops in western Africa have often come to the help of former colonies.
General Jean-Felix Akaga, commander of the regional central African military force known as FOMAC, said Bangui was "fully secured" by its troops, adding that others will arrive to help reinforce the mission.
However, a source in Gabon's defence ministry, told AFP that no decision had been taken, while a senior DR Congo army source said: "There is nothing planned... to combat this (rebel) movement.
Another source close to the Cameroon military confirmed that no decision had been taken.
The rebels began their push in early December, charging that Bozize and his government have not stuck to the terms of peace deals signed between 2007-2011.
As the ill-equipped Central African army proved little challenge to the insurgents, Bozize asked for help from neighbouring Chad.
With the government now largely restricted to Bangui, the Chadian troops are the only real obstacle to the rebels now sitting about 300 (200 miles) away.
Rebel coalition troops have stopped short of the capital, but UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said contradictory messages and their continued military offensive "seem to indicate that they might be intent on taking Bangui".
The United Nations mission has been working to help the government overcome more than a decade of strife.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon condemned rebel attacks on several towns while Washington expressed "deep concern".
Nassour Ouaidou, the head of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), told AFP in Libreville that the body was trying to broker a truce.
Central African Republic, with a population of about 4.5 million, has seen frequent coups and mutinies since independence from France in 1960. It ranks 179 out of 187 on the UN development index.