/ 10 February 2008

Chad rebels seek to lure govt forces from capital

Chad’s rebels said on Saturday they controlled the centre of the landlocked country and would hold their position in an effort to lure government troops from the capital into an open battle in the desert.

Ali Ordjo Hemchi, a spokesperson for the coalition of three rebel groups that launched a failed assault on Ndjamena a week ago, said the rebels occupied the towns of Mongo and Bitkine in rugged central Chad, about 500km from the capital.

”Our forces are in contact with other army garrisons which are interested in deserting,” Hemchi said, adding the rebels, based in the Darfur region of western Sudan, had received reinforcements and now had several columns inside Chad.

”We expect soon to seize control of other towns,” he said.

Humanitarian sources confirmed the rebels were in control of Mongo but it was not immediately possible to confirm the status of Bitkine.

President Idriss Déby Itno’s government says it routed the rebel column, which entered Ndjamena last week, using tanks and helicopters in two days of confused street fighting, but the insurgents insist they withdrew to regroup.

Aid workers say at least 160 civilians were killed in the assault, the second by the rebel coalition on the capital in less than two years.

The rebels, who denounce Déby’s 18-year rule in the Central African oil producer as corrupt and dictatorial, accuse France of military intervention to keep the French-trained helicopter pilot in power.

Paris strongly denies this, saying it provided Déby with logistical support while concentrating on evacuating more than 700 foreign nationals from Ndjamena. Tens of thousands of Chadians fled over the bridge into neighbouring Cameroon.

”Our objective remains to topple the regime in Ndjamena but we want to avoid fighting inside towns,” said Hemchi. ”We want to make the army leave the capital so we can repeat our victory of last week.”

The rebels say they defeated government forces on February 1, 50km outside the capital, opening their path to Ndjamena, thanks to the defection of fighters from Déby’s Zaghawa tribe.


One of the three factions in the rebel coalition, the Assembly of Forces for Change, is headed by Déby’s nephews, Tom and Timane Erdimi, and is made up largely of Zaghawa fighters.

After initially remaining neutral over the weekend, French President Nicholas Sarkozy has thrown his full backing behind Déby this week, tabling a non-binding United Nations Security Council statement urging member states to support Chad’s government.

Analysts have expressed concern that France’s support for Déby could jeopardise the neutrality of a 3 700-strong European Union peacekeeping force to protect civilians and aid workers in eastern Chad, which is due to deploy next week.

The force is mandated to protect roughly half-a-million Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadians fleeing the rebellion in Chad and the five-year ethnic conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region, which has killed more than 200 000 people. — Reuters