Thousands flee Chad capital, fresh attack feared

Thousands of civilians fled Chad’s capital Ndjamena on Monday after rebel forces pulled back from a two-day assault, but the rebels said they would attack again to try to topple President Idriss Déby Itno.

Déby Itno’s government, reeling from the latest strike on the city in under two years, said it had beaten off more than 2 000 insurgents who stormed into the riverside capital of the Central African state on Saturday, riding aboard armed pickup trucks.

But the rebels, who call Déby Itno’s 18-year rule corrupt and dictatorial, warned Ndjamena’s population to flee their homes. They said their withdrawal from the city late on Sunday was ”tactical” and that they were regrouping for another attack.

”We’re at the gates of the city,” rebel spokesperson Abderamane Koullamalah told Radio France International (RFI).

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council on Monday urged the international community to support the government of Chad against the armed rebels.

”The Security Council calls upon member states to provide support in conformity with the United Nations charter as requested by the government of Chad,” the council said in a non-binding statement read by Panama’s ambassador, Ricardo Alberto Arias, the current council president.

The final wording was chosen to satisfy Russia, which had objected to an initial French draft calling on UN members to support the government of Déby Itno ”by all necessary means” — a veiled reference to military aid.

South Africans to be evacuated

Meanwhile, the South African diplomatic mission in Chad was finalising arrangements for the evacuation of fifteen South Africans from the country, the Department of Foreign Affairs said on Monday.

Spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said the department was aware of 15 South Africans working in Chad. The department was in contact with French authorities who had agreed to assist with the evacuation of the fifteen.

People with relatives in Chad who had not been contacted by the department should telephone the South African consular services on 012 351 1000, he said.

”South Africa joins the international community in expressing its concern regarding the deteriorating political situation in Chad, Mamoepa said.

”In this regard we call on all parties to cooperate with the African Union-led mediation effort aimed at finding a lasting political solution in Chad.”

Relative calm

On Monday, residents said Ndjamena was relatively calm, but a government helicopter flew overhead and sporadic detonations could still be heard. Some people ventured cautiously out.

Government military vehicles moved around the city. Bodies of dead civilians were visible in some streets, killed in two days of chaotic fighting and widespread looting which badly damaged the state radio building and the main market.

Residents said they feared another rebel assault. Rebel fighters had gone from house to house in some areas, telling occupants to leave because they planned to attack again.

A Reuters correspondent across the Logone-Chari river from the city reported a flood of refugees streaming over the Ngueli bridge into Cameroon.

”I saw one girl wounded from a stray bullet in the back. There were children crying, almost all of them were frightened,” Reuters Television correspondent Emmanuel Braun said.

Local Cameroon authorities estimated some 15 000 people had fled across the river to the small border town of Kousseri.

Chad’s Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-mi said Ndjamena was under the control of Déby Itno’s government forces. ”The battle of Ndjamena is over,” he said, speaking to RFI from Addis Ababa where he had attended an African Union summit.

Médécins Sans Frontières estimated that several hundred people had been injured.

Chad says the rebels, who include some of Déby Itno’s former allies, are backed by Sudan. Khartoum denies this and in turn accuses the Chadians of supporting rebels in its Darfur region.

EU deployment delayed

The rebel attack forced France to use its troops stationed in its former colony to evacuate at least 700 French and other foreign nationals from the landlocked oil-producing state.

It also forced the European Union to delay the deployment of a European Union peacekeeping force (EUFOR) to eastern Chad to protect thousands of refugees who have fled violence spilling over from the long-running war in Sudan’s Darfur region.

”We stopped it in the last few days in order to see how the situation evolves on the ground,” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told reporters in Brussels. ”The situation is still not clear … but we continue to maintain the operation alive.”

An attack by anti-Déby Itno forces on Sunday on the far eastern border town of Adre opened a new front in the fighting. Chad’s army said it repulsed the assault which it said was made by a mixed force of Sudanese army troops and rebels. The rebels said they took Adre town but this could not be confirmed.

”The current escalation is threatening the full and complete deployment of EUFOR — putting the lives of civilians at further risk,” Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Africa programme, said.

The Chadian opposition website Alwihda said the rebel forces had made a tactical withdrawal to meet up with reinforcements coming from the east with fresh ammunition and supplies.

France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defence Minister Herve Morin said French forces secured Chad’s airbases and were protecting French and foreign civilians, but had so far been neutral in battles between rebels and the army.

Kouchner called the rebel offensive on Ndjamena a cruel attack, and said growing international condemnation could lead to other forms of intervention. – Reuters

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