Rebels in Central African Republic could enter the capital Bangui as early as "tonight, or tomorrow morning" if President Francois Bozize refuses their conditions for peace talks, a rebel spokesman said yesterday.

The three-week-old Seleka rebellion has advanced to within 45 miles of Bangui, posing the most serious threat yet to Mr Bozize's nearly 10 years in charge of the turbulent and resource-rich former French colony.

African Union chairman Thomas Yayi Boni was due to meet Mr Bozize yesterday to lay the groundwork for peace talks in Gabon with Seleka, an alliance of three armed groups.

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"We are waiting to see what comes out of today's meeting between Bozize and ... Yayi Boni before we make a final decision," a rebel spokesman said. "We could march into Bangui tonight or tomorrow morning."

The spokesman said the rebel force numbered around 3000 and was growing.

The rebel onslaught has highlighted the instability of a country that has remained poor and turbulent since independence from France in 1960, despite rich deposits of uranium, gold and diamonds.

The last time rebels reached Bangui was in 2003 during the insurgency that swept Mr Bozize to power.

Residents in the ramshackle riverside capital have either fled or stockpiled food and water in their homes in preparation for a rebel onslaught.

The streets of the city were largely deserted yesterday morning save for military patrols and a trickle of churchgoers. Youths carrying machetes had set up makeshift barricades along main roads.