Fighting restarts around palace in Chad capital

Fighting restarted on Sunday around the presidential palace in the Chadian capital, Ndjamena, where rebel forces have surrounded President Idriss Déby Itno and loyalist troops, residents said.

This is despite an earlier report by Libyan news agency Jana that General Mahamat Nouri, the main leader of the rebels, had accepted a ceasefire proposed by Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi.

Gadaffi was mandated by the African Union together with Congolese leader Denis Sassou Nguesso to negotiate an end to the crisis, which on Saturday saw rebels seize large parts of Ndjamena.

However, Ndjamena residents said the sound of heavy weapons and machine-gun fire could be heard on Sunday morning coming from the direction of the presidency complex in the centre of the dusty capital.

“The night was calm, but the firing has started up again since about 5am,” said an employee at the Novotel hotel, which is located not far from the palace.

Rebels seeking to topple Déby Itno fought their way into the capital on Saturday and encircled the palace, demanding that the president leave.
But at least two government ministers said that he was remaining inside at the head of loyal troops.

Residents said French military Mirage jets had taken off from the French military base in Ndjamena on Sunday. A correspondent for Radio France International in Ndjamena reported that they were flying low over the city.

However, an official source in Paris said on Sunday that Déby Itno had refused a French offer to help him escape the rebel onslaught on Ndjamena.

Foreign citizens were also sheltering in the Meridien hotel in the capital, waiting to be evacuated.

“Day only broke 20 minutes or a half-hour ago and the heavy artillery has already begun,” Katie-Jay Scott, of the humanitarian organisation Stop Genocide Now, wrote early on Sunday from the Meridien hotel in a blog posted on the group’s website.

France has started evacuating French and other foreign nationals.

On Saturday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called for a truce and negotiations between Chad’s government and rebel forces.

He said that, in a phone conversation with Déby Itno, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had expressed the hope “that there would be a truce, negotiations and an agreement, and we maintain that position”.

When asked about the situation in Ndjamena, under siege by the rebels while Déby Itno remained in the presidential palace, Kouchner said: “For the moment, it is a fast-moving situation. That’s the most we can say. We will have to see what develops.”

The United States urged Americans visiting Chad to consider leaving the country on Saturday as its embassy ordered the evacuation of some staff and families amid the rebel offensive in the capital.—Reuters, Sapa-AFP

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