CAR rebels take refuge at swanky hotel

2013-04-18 07:59
Armed Seleka rebels on a pick-up truck in Bangui. Sia Kambou,  AFP)

Armed Seleka rebels on a pick-up truck in Bangui. Sia Kambou, AFP)

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Bangui - Rebel fighters in Central African Republic seized the presidential palace when they overtook the capital in March, though when it came to setting up shop they set their sights a bit loftier: the city's sole luxury hotel.

With no advance reservation, rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles have turned the five-star Ledger Plaza Bangui into the temporary seat of government. And rebel leader Michel Djotodia is giving new meaning to the term presidential suite: His luxury villa behind the drained swimming pool has a listed rate of about $3 850 a night.

Here, the heavily armed rebels stand guard inside a thatched hut pool bar, and those fresh from the battlefield limp in stolen military fatigues past businessmen in traditional embroidered robes and diplomats who come to meet with the man who now rules mineral-rich Central African Republic.

There's the fever of an inauguration weekend in Washington — only with truckloads full of turbaned rebel forces in the parking lot donning ammunition belts.

"They came in from the villages and they are really excited about being in the big city and seeing what they can collect and capture and loot," one international aid worker said.

It's a rare uptick in business for the posh hotel that opened in September, just months before the volatile capital descended into chaos.

Before the rebels took over the city, the Ledger was most famous for being the place where ex-president Francois Bozize's son ran up a $15 000 bill. Bozize had his son arrested over the unpaid hotel bill.

The ex-president went into exile March 24, after the rebels breached the capital and as fierce fighting across Bangui left an untold number of civilians dead.

New government appointments

The hotel is now home to the top brass who sleep in rooms where executive suites start at $675 a night. The guests, from the rebel alliance known as Seleka, arrived in the days of the invasion and it's not clear how long they'll be staying, said the hotel's general manager Steven Hameeuw.

The exact financial arrangements between the hotel and its rebel guests are also unclear, and Hameeuw declined to comment. But some of those in camouflage can be seen adding lattes and beers to their room tabs.

With its goose-down pillows, dry-cleaning service and central air conditioning, it's a far cry from the rebel hinterlands of the north that lack not only electricity but even paved roads.

Here, clocks in the lobby show the current time of day in New York, Paris, Tripoli, Dubai and Beijing.

Hotel staff keep life humming at the only place in town with 24-7 electricity, running hot water and high-speed Internet. Cocktails are served and fresh flowers put out each day even as rampant looting and volleys of gunfire rock the rest of the city.

In the tiny business centre, officials put together and photocopy their announcements of new government appointments for $1 a page.

There is no shortage of plush sofas where visitors await their meetings with the ministers, many of whom have moved into private suites on the hotel's top floor.

Most take their meals in private though rebel strongman Noureddine Adam and Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye have been spotted at the nightly dinner buffet that offers up everything from gourmet cheese platters to guacamole to espresso-flavored mousse.

Out front, pick-up trucks full of armed rebels head out for daily patrols. Other fighters sprawl out on the grassy lawn in the sweltering heat.

On one recent afternoon, hotel staff could be seen installing a metal detector at the hotel's main entrance.

"They're asking the rebels to keep their weapons outside," one hotel security guard says. "They don't want to scare the other guests."

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