Rebels in Central African Republic said they had halted their advance on the capital on Wednesday and agreed to start peace talks, averting a clash with regionally backed troops in the mineral-rich nation.
The Seleka rebels had pushed within striking distance of Bangui after a three-week onslaught and threatened to oust President Francois Bozize, accusing him of reneging on a previous peace deal and cracking down on dissidents, reports Reuters.
Their announcement on Wednesday only gave the leader a limited reprieve as the fighters told Reuters they might insist on his removal in the negotiations.
"I have asked our forces not to move their positions starting today because we want to enter talks in (Gabon's capital) Libreville for a political solution," said Seleka spokesman, Eric Massi, speaking by telephone from Paris.
"I am in discussion with our partners to come up with proposals to end the crisis, but one solution could be a political transition that excludes Bozize," he added.
The advance by Seleka, an alliance of mostly north-eastern rebel groups, was the latest in a series of revolts in a country at the heart of one of Africa's most turbulent regions.
CAR remains severely underdeveloped despite its deposits of gold, diamonds and other minerals. French nuclear energy group Areva mines CAR's Bakouma uranium deposit - France's biggest commercial interest in its former colony.
Diplomatic sources have said talks organized by central African regional bloc ECCAS could start on January 10. The United States, the European Union and France have called on both sides to negotiate and spare civilians.
News of the rebel halt eased tensions in Bangui, where residents had been stockpiling food and water and staying indoors after dark.
"They say they are no longer going to attack Bangui, and that's great news for us," said Jaqueline Loza in the crumbling riverside city. "It is best for everyone if all sides go to the negotiating table."
ECCAS members Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon and Cameroon have sent hundreds of soldiers to reinforce CAR's army after a string of rebel victories since early December.
Gabonese General Jean Felix Akaga, commander of the regional force, said his troops were defending the town of Damara, 75 km (45 miles) north of Bangui, close to where the rebels were camped.