Rebels seized Chad’s capital, Ndjamena, on Saturday after intense fighting with government forces, military and rebel sources said, as President Idriss Déby Itno remained holed up in the presidential palace.
”The whole of the city is in the hands of the rebels. It’s down to mopping-up operations,” said a military source.
Chadian rebel spokesperson Abakar Tollimi said the president could leave his palace, if he so wished, but later added that there were plans to attack the presidential residence.
”We suppose that Déby is inside. If he wants to leave, we have no problem,” Tollimi said by satellite telephone. ”We control the situation, we control the city; there are some pockets of resistance.”
Tollimi said government troops were around the presidential palace and using heavy weapons against the rebels, who military sources said earlier were armed with machine guns, assault rifles and rocket launchers.
A French military source later said Chadian government forces had beaten back the rebels surrounding the presidential palace. ”Chadian forces have enlarged the security perimeter around the presidential palace,” the source said, adding that fighting was continuing in the city and the outcome was still uncertain.
The wife and daughter of a Saudi employee at the Saudi embassy in Ndjamena were killed when a bomb hit the ambassador’s residence, the Saudi Foreign Ministry announced.
France sent an extra 150 troops to the Central African country and prepared to evacuate its citizens, while French Defence Minister Herve Morin said rebels were battling government forces as they closed in on the presidential palace.
Despite the reports, Chad’s Foreign Minister Amad Allam-Mi said that Déby Itno was at the Presidency and the situation was under control in the city.
Allam-Mi accused Sudan of masterminding the rebel offensive with the aim to stop the so-called Eufor Chad-Central African Republic mission that is to protect refugees from the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur, just over Chad’s eastern border, from deploying.
”Sudan does not want this force because it would open a window on the genocide in Darfur,” he told Radio France Internationale, adding that Sudan was trying ”to install a regime in Chad that will bow to it”.
The Eufor mission has a United Nations Security Council mandate to back up, for one year, about 300 UN police officers sent to monitor camps for Darfur refugees and internally displaced persons.
The rebels, in olive-green battle dress and white armbands, were seen on Saturday roaring around in camouflaged pickup trucks, witnesses said, and had been welcomed with joy in some districts.
Witnesses said the main prison in Ndjamena had been stormed and inmates released, while security sources reported some looting had taken place.
The French Foreign Ministry strongly condemned ”the attempt to seize power” in Chad by ”armed groups from the outside”.
French troops have been deployed in Chad since 1986. On Saturday, they were reinforced with a combat unit of extra troops in response to the current situation, bringing to 1 450 the number permanently posted there.
A spokesperson in Paris for French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had had a long conversation with his Chadian counterpart, and held two emergency meetings on the situation.
France warned its nationals to remain indoors and prepared to evacuate them. The country has 1 500 citizens in Chad, a former French colony, with 85% of them in the capital.
”This is my second rebel attack,” after an April 2006 bid, said a French businessman who has worked in Chad for two years and spoke on condition of anonymity. ”I don’t want to come back to Chad. Everyday life is cumbersome. I’m totally pessimistic about the country’s future.”
Marina Kerguen, a mother of four, said she would ”come back when things have calmed down and school is open again. I’ve never felt any sensitivity towards the French.”
The UN planned to evacuate 51 UN staffers to Cameroon, including nine employees of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a spokesperson said.
The United States said it was closely monitoring the fighting, as its embassy ordered the evacuation of staff families and selected employees.
The offensive — the biggest since April 2006 — comes after rebel leaders Timan Erdimi, Mahamat Nouri and Adbelwahid Aboud Makaye joined forces in mid-December after a peace pact with Déby Itno fell apart.
African Union leaders meeting in Addis Ababa said the body ”strongly condemns” the rebel attacks and ”demands that an immediate end be put to these attacks and resulting bloodshed”. — Sapa-AFP