Chadian rebels said on Friday that their forces had taken up positions around the capital, Ndjamena, and they called on President Idriss DÃ©by Itno to negotiate a power-sharing deal or face an offensive on the city.
Residents in the dusty capital on the banks of the Chari River said the atmosphere was tense. Workers stayed at home, the streets were virtually deserted apart from reinforced military checkpoints and patrols. Helicopters clattered overhead.
The army deployed to defend the capital, in western Chad, on Thursday after a rebel column of 300 vehicles raced across the landlocked African country after advancing from the eastern border with Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region.
Chadian officials accuse Sudan of arming and backing the latest attacking force of several united rebel groups, which have fought a hit-and-run guerrilla war for years against DÃ©by, who himself seized power in a revolt from the east in 1990.
The rebels appeared to be trying to seek a quick military victory before the imminent deployment of a European Union peacekeeping force in eastern Chad. France, which has fighter jets and soldiers stationed in Chad under a bilateral defence treaty, was reinforcing its contingent, French radio said.
After advancing to within 250km east of Ndjamena on Thursday, rebel leader Timane Erdimi told Radio France International on Friday the rebel forces had split up and taken up positions around the capital.
”Even if we’re at the gates of the palace, we’re ready to negotiate a real sharing of power,” Erdimi said.
”If not, well, we’ll be forced to launch hostilities to chase DÃ©by from power. It’s simple,” he added.
”It’s up to DÃ©by to choose between peace and war,”
There was no immediate official response from the Chadian government, nor any independent confirmation of the rebels’ positions.
But government military sources said an army cordon was in place around the city, which was last directly attacked by the rebels in April 2006, when several hundred people were killed in fighting in suburbs and streets.
The presidential palace in Ndjamena was heavily guarded by soldiers, residents said. Cellphone networks had been cut off and residents were sending information by email.
Foreign embassies in the Chadian capital were advising their nationals to stay at home and avoid travel.
Up to 3 700 European Union peacekeepers, about half from France, are due to deploy in Chad’s turbulent east in the coming weeks to protect hundreds of thousands of refugees from violence spilling from Sudan’s Darfur.
One of the French commanders of the European force, Brigadier General Jean-Philippe Ganascia, said the latest developments could slightly delay the arrival of EU troops but would not significantly disrupt the deployment.
Chad and Sudan accuse each other of supporting rebel groups in their respective territories, though each denies the charge.
Chadian rebels have previously threatened to attack the European force if it interferes in their campaign against DÃ©by, although European commanders have pledged not to take sides.
Several of Chad’s main eastern rebel groups abandoned a Libyan-brokered ceasefire late last year, triggering pitched battles in November and December that both rebel and government sides said killed hundreds of fighters. — Reuters