Chadian army, rebels claim hundreds killed

Soldiers and rebels have both claimed to have killed several hundred of their opponents in combat on Monday in eastern Chad in what may turn out to be the heaviest fighting since rebels tried to take the capital last year.

The battles at Abougouleigne, about 90km east of the town of Abeche, left ”several hundred [rebels] dead, several injured and several prisoners of war” taken into military custody, according to the statement from the army’s general staff.

The rebels issued a similar statement: ”Loss of human life on the enemy side, more than 200 [soldiers] dead, including division General Dirmi Haroun and Colonel Guende Abdramane,” said a statement of the Union of the Forces for Development and Democracy posted on a Chadian opposition website.

The Chadian army statement did not give any figures of casualties on the army side. But the rebel statement said that only 20 of its combatants were killed and another 41 injured.

Both statements said that these are just preliminary reports on Monday’s battles.

It was not possible to independently confirm either side’s claims, but if proved true, Monday’s fighting would be the worst since a separate rebel group tried to take the capital in April 2006. At the time the government said it killed over 300 rebels.

Chad has struggled in the face of several rebellions in the east, with some insurgents saying President Idriss Déby has not provided enough support to their kinsmen in the neighboring Darfur region of Sudan.

Last month, four Chadian rebel groups signed a peace deal in Libya with Déby’s government. But the Union of Forces for Development and Democracy said last week it was unsatisfied with the pace of implementing the agreements, and then clashed with government forces over the weekend. No information was immediately available about casualties from the weekend clashes.

United Nations officials estimate that around three million people have been uprooted by conflicts in the region, also including the fighting in western Sudan’s Darfur region and unrelated rebellions in Chad and Central African Republic.

Aid workers say both rebels and the government have visited refugee camps to recruit children into their forces.

The European Union has offered to send a 3 700-strong force to Chad and Central Africa Republic to help protect refugees displaced from the four-year conflict in neighbouring Darfur. Deployment of the EU troops has been held up, however, over a lack of air transportation, as well as medical and logistical units.

A meeting last week in Brussels failed to get more commitments, raising the possibility of the EU mission being delayed past its proposed launch next month.

Chad, a largely arid country, has been convulsed by civil wars and invasions since independence from France in 1960. The impoverished Central African nation is also one of the continent’s newest oil producers.

The most recent conflict is intertwined with the one in Sudan’s Darfur region. The Chadian president is from the same ethnic group as some of the Darfur rebels, and each country has accused the other of supporting rebel groups on the other’s soil.

Hundreds of army officers and members of Déby’s own family defected in 2005 after they accused him of not providing enough support to their kinsmen in Sudan.

Once described simply as clashes between nomadic Arab tribes and African farmers, both the Darfur and Chadian conflicts have grown increasingly complicated as rebel groups splintered, formed new alliances and received defectors over the years.

Armed bandits have taken advantage of the lawlessness to attack civilians, and local politicians have used ethnic rivalries to fan the violence.

Instability has increased ahead of a planned UN deployment in Darfur, which will work with African Union peacekeepers, and the announcement of the EU mission.

The Chadian deployment is widely seen as strengthening Déby’s regime, which has also benefited from high oil prices that allowed it to buy more weapons. In 2005, a parliamentary vote to remove constitutional term limits was endorsed in a referendum and Déby won a third term in elections boycotted by the opposition. – Sapa-AP

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