/ 6 February 2008

Chad ‘in control’ after rebel attack, says president

Chad’s government is in total control of the country after beating off a rebel offensive, President Idriss Déby Itno said on Wednesday as France’s defence minister flew in to show his support.

Making his first public appearance since rebels attacked the capital, Ndjamena, on the weekend and besieged his presidential palace, Déby accused the president of neighbouring Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, of backing the rebel offensive.

”We have total control of the situation, not only in the capital, but also the whole country,” Déby, wearing military uniform, told a news conference at his palace after meeting French Defence Minister Herve Morin.

Morin’s visit came as France, which has war planes and more than 1 000 troops stationed in its former colony, threw its weight behind Déby. He has fought off several bids by rebels to end his 18-year rule in the Central African oil producer.

In Rome, Pope Benedict added his voice to international calls for an end to the conflict in Chad, which relief officials said was blocking aid flights to more than half a million refugees and civilians in the east displaced by violence.

Initially calling itself ”neutral” as fighting raged at the weekend, former colonial ruler France has moved to back Déby.

After obtaining United Nations Security Council support for Déby’s government, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Tuesday his country could intervene if needed against the rebels, whom Chad says are supported by Sudan. Khartoum denies this.

Rebel forces said they were still occupying positions ”around Ndjamena” and vowed to fight any French intervention.

”If we are attacked, then we have the right to legitimately defend ourselves,” rebel spokesperson Ali Ordjo Hemchi said.

”We ask France to remain neutral, on the side of the Chadian people, and not on the side of a failed regime,” he added, saying he was speaking from Chad outside Ndjamena.

He said rebel forces had routed early on Wednesday a column of pro-Déby ”Toro-boro” Sudanese rebels north-east of the capital, but there was no independent confirmation of this.

Déby’s government said it had defeated its Chadian rebel foes, who had made a lightning advance last week from the eastern border with Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region. The rebels said they had pulled back and would strike again.

Ndjamena was calm on Wednesday. Ambulance workers collected the bodies of those killed in the weekend fighting, which injured hundreds of people.

British charity Save the Children said civilian aid flights between Ndjamena and the east had been halted and it called on the United Nations to organise urgent supply airlifts from neighbouring Cameroon and Central African Republic. — Reuters