* Rebels occupy Sibut after soldiers withdraw toward capital
* Regional bloc agrees to increase troops in CAR
* Rebels say won't attack Bangui pending peace talks
BANGUI, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Rebels in Central African
Republic took control of a strategic town north of the capital
on Saturday after soldiers defending it withdrew, ramping up
tensions ahead of planned peace talks.
The three-week-old uprising by SELEKA rebels poses the
biggest threat yet to President Francois Bozize's near ten-year
rule over the former French colony - a nation plagued by poverty
and turmoil despite its rich natural resources.
Regional neighbours agreed on Friday to send more troops to
shore up CAR's army after a string of defeats and after French
President Francois Hollande rejected a plea for military help
made by embattled President Francois Bozize.
Insurgents riding motorbikes and packed into pickup trucks
streamed into Sibut, a regional capital on a major crossroads
about 190 kilometres (115 miles) north of the capital Bangui,
unopposed early on Saturday, said witnesses.
"(They) took positions at strategic points in the town,
firing their guns," said Yvon Bema, a 27-year-old Sibut resident
who fled to Bangui. "The national army and the Chadians had left
on Friday in the direction of Bangui," he added.
The land around Sibut had been seen as a buffer between the
rebels and Bangui. Government troops there were backed by
soldiers from neighbouring Chad.
CAR's minister of territorial administration, Josue Binoua,
confirmed on local radio that Sibut was occupied by rebels after
troops withdrew to Damara, about 75 km north of Bangui, where
clashes had been reported on Friday.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) -
which already has more than 500 peacekeepers in CAR - announced
overnight a decision to send in more troops ahead of talks
planned between the rebels and the government in early January.
"We are thinking of a way to deploy this mission as quickly
as possible," Gabon Foreign Minister Emmanuel Issoze Ngondet
told reporters after a meeting with his regional counterparts in
Gabon's capital Libreville. He did not say how many soldiers
would be deployed.
The ECCAS soldiers, mostly from Chad, are part of the
MICOPAX (Mission for the Consolidation of Peace in Central
African Republic) peacekeeping force.
The SELEKA rebels have threatened to overthrow Bozize if he
does not honour a previous peace deal offering former fighters
pay and jobs. They have said they will stay out of Bangui for
now to give peace talks a chance.
Officials in Bangui said on Friday rebels had agreed to send
delegates to Libreville in early January, though a rebel
spokesman was not immediately available to comment.
Bozize came to power in a rebellion in 2003 and has since
won two elections. France launched air strikes against rebels
challenging him in 2006, but Paris has said it will not
intervene militarily in the current conflict.
The United States said on Thursday it had closed its embassy
in Bangui and evacuated its staff.
Central African Republic is one of a number of countries in
the region where U.S. Special Forces are helping local forces
try to track down the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group
which has killed thousands of civilians across four African
About 1,200 French nationals live in CAR, mostly working for
mining firms and aid groups in the capital. French defence
ministry sources said Paris had sent in 150 troops to Bangui
late on Friday to bolster an existing 250-strong deployment
safeguarding French citizens.
French nuclear energy group Areva mines the
Bakouma uranium deposit in CAR's south - France's biggest
commercial interest in its former colony.
(Additional reporting by Phal Gualbert Mezui Ndong in
Libreville and Catherin Bremer in Paris; Writing by Richard
Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Heavens)