Rebels penetrated the capital of Chad on Saturday, clashing with government troops and moving toward the presidential palace after a three-day advance through the Central African nation, a French military spokesperson and witnesses said.
President Idriss Déby Itno was holed up in the presidential palace, a military source said.
Colonel Thierry Burkhard said groups of rebels gathered outside the capital overnight before about 1 000 to 1 500 fighters entered the capital, Ndjamena, early on Saturday and spread through the city.
The French and American governments told their citizens to assemble in secure locations as witnesses reported looting and gunfire near government buildings.
”The whole town is in the hands of the rebels, there is only mopping up;” an Agence France-Presse source said.
France’s embassy in Chad sent messages over Radio France Internationale to tell citizens to head to the Lycee Francais high school and two other locations in Ndjamena a French diplomatic official said on condition of anonymity because government policy barred him from providing his name.
France’s military has about 1 400 personnel in Chad, about 1 200 of those in the capital.
The United States embassy said in a bulletin on its website that any American citizens seeking evacuation should immediately move to the embassy. State Department spokesperson Karl Duckworth said the embassy had authorised the departure of non-essential personnel and family members.
William Spindler, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said 51 UN staff were evacuated from Ndjamena to Cameroon overnight. The agency still had eight staff in Ndjamena, Spindler said.
A hotel operator at the Hotel le Meridien, about 1,6km from the headquarters of President Idriss Déby Itno, said gunfire and explosions had been resounding through the capital since 7am.
The man, who would not give his name, said he had not seen any rebels. The line went dead before a reporter could get more details. Other phone lines were also dead and the information could be immediately confirmed.
Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, the coordinator of Chad’s main non-armed opposition alliance, said gunfire began at about 8am and ended about two hours later.
”We do not know what is happening … Civilians are in the streets. They are watching what is happening,” he said. ”The radio has gone off air. Television here only broadcasts in the evening so we will know later whether it is off air.”
Rebels in more than a dozen vehicles drove past the Libya Hotel, which overlooks the Parliament building, said a man who answered the telephone at that hotel. ”I saw more than 15 vehicles and they [the rebels] were firing into the air,” said the man, who also would not give his name.
He said he also watched looters go into a police station opposite the hotel, stealing chairs and trashing papers on the ground.
Witnesses also said the main prison in Ndjamena had been stormed and inmates released, while security sources reported some looting had taken place.
Rebel forces have been advancing on the capital for three days in about 250 pickup trucks after crossing the border from Sudan, about 820km to the east of Ndjamena.
Chad, a French colony until 1960, has been convulsed by civil wars and invasions since independence from France in 1960, and the recent discovery of oil has only increased the intensity of the struggle for power in the largely desert country.
The most recent series of rebellions began in 2005 in the country’s east, occurring at the same time as the conflict in neighbouring Sudan’s western region of Darfur saw a rise in violence. One Chadian rebel group launched a failed assault on Ndjamena in April 2006.
The governments of Chad and Sudan repeatedly exchange accusations the one is backing the other’s rebel groups.
Déby Itno himself came to power at the head of a rebellion in 1990; he won elections since, but none of the votes was deemed free or fair. He brought a semblance of peace after three decades of civil war and an invasion by Libya, but became increasingly isolated and members of his own family have joined Chad’s latest rebellion.
UN officials estimate that about three million people have been uprooted by conflicts in the region, including the fighting in western Sudan’s Darfur region, which borders Chad, and rebellions in Central African Republic. — Sapa-AP, AFP