Fierce fighting with tanks and helicopter strikes rocked the capital of Chad for a second day on Sunday as rebels surrounded President Idriss DÃ©by Itno in his palace and hundreds of foreigners fled the country.
With international aid organisations reporting bodies in the streets and hundreds of people wounded, anti-tank and automatic weapons fire was heard around the presidential palace, where DÃ©by Itno has been holed up since on Friday.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin said the new fighting could be ”crucial” in the battle for control of the former French colony in Central Africa.
The campaign by three rebel commanders has opened up a new conflict next to Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region and the deployment of a European peacekeeping mission in Chad and neighbouring Central African Republic has been suspended, Morin said in Paris.
Chadian authorities accused Sudan of giving military backing to rebels who launched a new attack on Sunday on an eastern town near the border.
Chadian army helicopters attacked a rebel column in the south of the capital near the national radio station. They also fired at other rebel vehicles in the city.
An army tank defended the entrance to the national radio station and was firing at anyone who showed themselves on the street, a witness said.
”We did not take the airport so as not to hinder the evacuation of foreign nationals and now the French army is letting these helicopters take off and attack us,” said a rebel spokesperson, Abderaman Khoulamallah.
The fighting closed in on the airport and forced a temporary halt to the airlift of foreigners, but the French military said a Hercules plane carrying 104 people left on Sunday morning in a calm spot in the unrest.
A French Foreign Ministry statement said 217 French nationals and 297 foreigners had been flown out of Ndjamena.
The United Nations said it would evacuate all UN personnel, and United States embassy staff were taken to the French military base on Sunday to be flown out, military sources said.
China, a major investor in Chad’s growing oil industry, was organising an airlift for 210 Chinese and two Taiwan nationals to Cameroon, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.
The foreigners also included Germans, Belgians, Spanish, Portuguese, Egyptian and Armenian nationals.
The French ministry said about 400 foreigners were still grouped at two hotels, the French international school and other two other emergency assembly points.
But DÃ©by Itno, who seized at the head of a similar rebel force in 1990, refused a French offer to help him leave the country.
France sent an extra 150 troops to help with the evacuations and French President Nicolas Sarkozy broke off from celebrating his wedding on Saturday to phone DÃ©by Itno twice.
No death toll from the fighting has been given, but a UN security service official said there were many bodies in the streets, ”some burned, some just hacked” to death.
The MÃ©decins sans FrontiÃƒÂ¨res (MSF) aid group said hundreds of civilians had been wounded, but it was unable to give a death toll.
The new fighting dashed hopes of a ceasefire that Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi was reportedly trying to secure.
The rebel force in pickup trucks started moving across the desert from a base near the eastern border with Sudan on Monday, but major fighting only erupted on Friday as they neared the capital.
The Chad army’s chief of staff, General Daoud Soumain, was killed in Friday’s fighting, officials said.
Rebels took over large sections of Ndjamena on Saturday after intense fighting with government forces.
A military source said, however, that government forces were trying to force the anti-DÃ©by Itno rebels back and rebel spokesperson Koulamallah acknowledged that ”[government] tanks have pushed us back a bit”. French military sources said there were about 2Ã‚Â 000 rebel fighters and that DÃ©by Itno has at least 2Ã‚Â 000 to 3Ã‚Â 000 troops.
The rebels were helped by Sudanese helicopters and Antonov military aircraft in an attack on Sunday on the eastern town of Adre, said the local government prefect, General Abadi Sair.
Chad’s Foreign Minister, Amad Allam-Mi, has accused Sudan of masterminding the rebel offensive in a bid to halt a planned European peacekeeping force (Eufor) in Chad and the Central African Republic to protect refugees mostly from Darfur.
”Sudan does not want this force because it would open a window on the genocide in Darfur,” the minister told Radio France Internationale, adding that Sudan was trying ”to install a regime in Chad that will bow to it”.
The French defence minister said the Eufor deployment, already held up several times, had now been put back to Wednesday but added: ”Nobody has the intention of giving up this operation.” — Sapa-AFP