BANGUI - The Central African Republic's neighbours took steps Friday to tackle the crisis in the chronically unstable nation, where rebels have advanced towards the capital Bangui, stoking local and international alarm. President Francois Bozize's appeals for help from former colonial power France and the United States have fallen on deaf ears, but fears about the deteriorating security situation have seen Washington evacuate its embassy in Bangui and the UN pull out staff. Foreign ministers in the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC) were due to discuss the crisis later Friday at a meeting in the Gabonese capital Libreville.

"The goal is to get to negotiations (between the government and the rebels) by January 10," a source in the Multinational Force in Centrafrica (FOMAC) told AFP.

A diplomatic team from FOMAC has begun talks with the authorities in Bangui and sent a delegation to the rebel-held strategic town of Ndele in the north to meet members of the rebel coalition Seleka which launched its offensive on December 10.

The United Nations has demanded that the rebels halt their offensive, and urged Bozize's government to ensure the safety of civilians amid fears of a breakdown in law and order in Central Africa, one of the poorest countries on the planet

Washington said Thursday it had evacuated its embassy and temporarily halted all operations, but the State Department said it had not broken off diplomatic ties with the beleaguered government.

It warned US citizens not to travel to the chronically unstable country, one of the poorest on the planet, and called for talks and a "comprehensive agreement that will offer a new vision of peace and security for the country."

The United Nations was also pulling out staff in response to the advances by the rebel fighters, which have alarmed residents in Bangui, fearful of looting and clashes.

A coalition of three rebel movements known as Seleka - or the "alliance" in the Sango language - has taken a string of towns, including four regional capitals, among them the garrison town and key diamond mining hub of Birao.

It is demanding that the government fulfil the terms of peace pacts signed in 2007 and 2001, providing for disarmament and social reintegration, including pay.

Bozize, who took power in a 2003 coup and has twice been elected into office, on Thursday asked in vain for help.

"We ask our French cousins and the United States of America, the great powers, to help us to push back the rebels... to allow for dialogue in Libreville to resolve the current crisis," he told thousands of supporters at a rally in Bangui.

At another rally organised by his supporters on Friday, about 300 women marched in Bangui to urge Seleka to stop fighting.

"We want peace in CAR," the women chanted as they marched to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Faustin Archange Touadera.

Our country is in danger... People are killing our brothers in the country," said Estelle Loka, a housewife with three childen. "France has to defend us."

The former colonial power has however insisted it would not intervene in the CAR, which has a chequered history of coups and brutal rule since independence in 1960.

President Francois Hollande said on Thursday "those days are over".

In 2006, France, which supported Bozize in his rise to power, had lent logistical help and air support to fight off rebels.

While Seleka says it has no plans to move on the capital, a statement last week announcing it had suspended its advance was followed within a day by news of further rebel victories.

On Wednesday, demonstrators angry at France's failure to intervene tore down the flag at the French embassy in Bangui and broke windows at the building.

France has around 250 soldiers based at Bangui airport providing technical support to the FOMAC peacekeeping mission, which consists of up to 500 troops from Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad and Cameroon.

As the ill-equipped Central African army proved little challenge to the insurgents, Bozize asked for help from neighbouring Chad which sent in some troops.

FOMAC said Thursday more troops were coming, but there are no details about numbers or timing.