Smouldering bodies remain after fighting in Chad

Charred bodies and burnt-out trucks still lie on the blackened grass in a valley in eastern Chad two days after the fighting moved further north.

Columns of smoke rise up and drift across the smouldering plains beneath Tourka Mountain, a rocky outcrop near the border with Sudan’s Darfur region.

Chad’s army says it has finally pushed rebels fighting against President Idriss Déby Itno’s government across the border into Sudan and it is keen to show the world the evidence.

”This was the rebels’ base,” says General Abdelkarim Bahar Mahamat Itno, Chadian army chief and cousin of the president, gesturing at the corpses, his arm bandaged and in a sling.

Sitting in a dried-out riverbed, or wadi, he recounts to visiting journalists how heavy the fighting has been.

”The main theatre of operations was 12km away, but you can see the fighting that took place here,” he says, describing one of the longest battles so far.

”The combat lasted 10 hours but the army is capable of destroying everything … There are no rebels left on Chadian territory, not a single one. I assure you,” he adds.

Government troops have been engaging at least three rebel factions in the heaviest fighting in months in eastern Chad following the collapse of an October 25 peace accord.

The renewed conflict comes just weeks before a European Union peacekeeping force of up to 3 700 soldiers is due to deploy here on a United Nations mission to protect several hundred thousand refugees and the aid workers caring for them.

Both sides claim to have inflicted a heavy death toll on enemy forces and not all of General Itno’s men are as confident as he is that the rebels are off Chadian soil.

”That’s the Chadian army, they are searching with the French for rebels,” says one soldier, as the drone of French Mirage jets hums overhead. ”It’s possible they are hiding in the mountains. We just don’t know.”

Itno’s men appear exhausted. ”The combat started last Monday. It’s now the 11th day,” says a second soldier, who also declines to give his name. ”The combat was very hard, we are very tired. It’s many days since we’ve eaten and we’ve not had the chance to rest. There are problems with food and with water.”

The rebels and the government have given conflicting accounts of the latest combat, which involved fighters from the rebel Assembly of Forces for Change (RFC).

Itno says at least 70 rebels were killed in two days of fighting while just six soldiers died. But the RFC claims a substantial victory, saying it took more than 200 prisoners.

Independent casualty figures are difficult to obtain, but a senior humanitarian worker in the capital, Ndjamena, says hundreds of fighters have been killed and wounded since fighting restarted late last month. — Reuters

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Stephanie Hancock
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