Rebels in Central African Republic seized the central town of Kaga Bandoro on Tuesday despite the presence of foreign troops meant to support the government, a government official said.
The fall of the town, 333 km (207 miles) north of the capital Bangui, came hours after the Seleka rebel alliance said they would suspend their push and means they now have a firm grip on the north and east of the fragile nation.
"They took the town after a short battle despite the surprising lack of action from the Chadian (soldiers)," Rigobert Enza, who works in Kaga Bandoro's mayor's office, told Reuters after he fled to Sibut, the next town to the south.
Foreign soldiers in Kaga Bandoro include Chadians dispatched in the last few weeks to help Bangui tackle the latest rebellion as well as members of a regional stabilization force made up of soldiers from across Central Africa.
Neither rebel nor government officials were available for comment. But the daughter of a second local government official in the town said she had received a call from her father confirming the town had been occupied by rebels.
CAR, a mineral-rich but land-locked former French colony, has been plagued by insecurity since independence in 1960.
President Francois Bozize came to power in 2003 after a brief war and has won two elections since then.
But facing several internal rebellions and the spill-over from conflicts in neighboring Chad and Sudan, he has struggled to stabilize the nation.
"The situation has become very serious," a senior official in the president's camp told Reuters, asking not to be named.
The rebels are made up of fighters from several previous rebel groups and complain that Bozize has failed to stick to the terms of a 2007 peace deal.
(Reporting by Paul-Marin Ngoupana; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)