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11 Feb 2008 10:59
Chadian rebels fled south on Sunday pursued by government forces, the military said, as the United Nations refugee agency warned that recent fighting in the country had put aid agencies in danger.
Although a calm returned to the capital Ndjamena a week after a bloody assault on the city which left more than 160 people dead, the rebel forces said they were heading south in order to stretch government supply lines.
In a statement from Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said security was “spiralling downwards” for agencies attempting to assist refugees from Sudan who were fleeing into eastern Chad.
“We are already operating in an environment where security is spiralling downwards, where the supply from Ndjamena is cut after recent fighting, and where our field offices are running short of fuel,” UNHCR spokesperson Catherine Huck said.
The rebels, who were attempting to overthrow President Idriss Déby Itno, abandoned their fallback position in central Chad over the weekend and headed south with the army in pursuit, military officials said.
“About 150 to 200 rebel vehicles left Mongo on Saturday and were heading in the direction of Am Timan, in the southern zone of the three borders,” said one source.
The rebels were heading to this lawless area where the porous borders of Chad, Sudan and the Central African Republic meet, leading some to speculate that they will look to slip back to the safety of their Sudanese bases.
“Time is starting to favour Déby—the rebels are perhaps beginning to lack petrol, arms, food. Perhaps they are looking for an exit,” another military source said.
A rebel spokesperson dismissed talk of a retreat.
“We are trying a new strategy, we want to stretch them out as far as possible from their bases,” said Abderaman Koulamallah.
He said an army helicopter had fired over the heads of the rebel forces, but not attacked.
Back in the capital, residents were allowed to leave their homes in the evening for the first time since a strict curfew was imposed after weekend battles between the rebels and government forces.
Shops reopened with the scars of war still in evidence, including the charred shells of destroyed tanks.
A full curfew remains in place outside the capital—a sign of the uncertainty still surrounding the intentions of the rebel alliance, which has united three factions against Déby Itno.
But, in a sign that things are slowly getting back to normal, Air France said it would be resuming flights from Paris to Chad as of Tuesday morning.
Many of an estimated 50Â 000 people who fled Ndjamena to neighbouring Cameroon remain in refugee camps supplied by the World Food Programme
The WFP said that as of Saturday it was feeding more than 37Â 000 displaced Chadians in Kousseri, northern Cameroon, just across the river from Ndjamena.
It said the refugees were “mainly women and children who spent several nights in mosques, churches and school buildings or in the open”.
Meanwhile heavy bombardment and armed attacks in Darfur by the Sudanese army and the Janjaweed militia over the weekend have forced 12Â 000 refugees to flee into eastern Chad, the UN refugee agency said.
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