Rebels in the Central African Republic on Tuesday seized the key city of Bambari, the local mayor, said - in a sharp escalation of violence ahead of the presidential and parliamentary election on December 27.
Government and UN sources also confirmed the fall of Bambari.
The news sent shockwaves in Bangui where the government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera has been trying to build support for the vote.
"The armed groups that are there, bothering everyone, it creates tension. There's fear and it reigns in the hearts of people in the capital", said Evodi Pakolomekenge, a journalism student.
President Touadera on Monday said the vote would go ahead as planned, urging people to ignore reports of a rebel advance.
Former president Francois Bozize of backing a new rebel movement keen on overthrowing the government.
Bozize's presidential bid was rejected by the country's constitutional court citing UN sanctions.
"Can you really develop a country through war? In my opinion, no. If there are problems, let's sit around a table and discuss them. And in the negotiations, of course, each party agrees to win and also to lose", wondered Lucy Abatumu, a lecturer at the University of Bangui.
#photooftheday |#MINUSCA Portuguese Contingent has taken up positions on different axes in Bossembele , blocking any advance southwards by armed groups. The peacekeepers were deployed as part of Integrated Election Security Plan implemented with #CAR?? defence & security forces pic.twitter.com/wVfRIcJRem— MINUSCA (@UN_CAR) December 22, 2020
Bambari's capture will further complicate matters for the Central African Republic's weak government which has already been struggling to govern.
Bambari is located 380km northeast of the capital Bangui.
Vast areas of the country remain in the hands of militias and rebel groups.