updated 11/26/2006 5:44:22 AM ET 2006-11-26T10:44:22

Government forces entered a major city in volatile eastern Chad early Sunday, one day after rebels launched an attack and claimed to have seized the town, witnesses said.

The troops entered Abeche, 550 miles east of the capital, N’djamena, around 7 a.m. and there was no gunfire, according to several witnesses and aid workers there. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The U.N. refugee chief said Saturday that the violence is threatening aid delivery to some 218,000 people from Sudan’s Darfur region who have fled across the border to Chad.

“The humanitarian lifeline there is very, very fragile and we fear that continuing violence in the region could easily sever it, jeopardizing the lives of thousands of Darfurians and Chadians who have already suffered too much,” said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

On Saturday, gunfire on the outskirts of Abeche sent residents fleeing for cover, and humanitarian workers were told to stay in their homes, according to a statement released by the French embassy in the capital. The rebels announced they had seized Abeche, although the government denied it.

It was not clear if there were casualties; communications were cut to Abeche soon after the fighting began and calls to government officials in the capital were not returned.

The Forces for Democracy and Development, known by the French acronym UFDD, is a union of several rebel groups opposed to President Idriss Deby, who first took power at the head of his own rebel army in 1990.

The rebels, who include army deserters and some of Deby’s relatives, have had sporadic clashes with the army since 2005 and in April launched a failed attack on the capital.

Power struggle
The competition for power in this former French colony has become more intense since the country began exporting oil in 2004.

Chad’s eastern region has seen increased violence recently, raising fears that Sudan’s Darfur conflict is spilling across the border. The government has said the violence pitting ethnic Arabs against ethnic Africans appears to be between Chadians but accused Sudan of instigating the clashes.

Chad often accuses Sudan of supporting Chadian rebels and Sudan makes a similar accusation against Chad.

In Darfur, ethnic African tribes accusing the central government of neglect launched a rebellion three years ago, following years of low-level tribal clashes over land and water. The government is accused of responding by unleashing ethnic Arab tribal militias who have been linked to atrocities.

More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced since fighting began in Darfur in early 2003.

Arabs, among them slave traders, first reached sub-Saharan Africa more than a century ago. Intermarriage and the embrace of Islam by many Africans have blurred identities, but an Arab-African divide persists. It is exacerbated by a lack of resources in the region, pitting communities against each other in a competition for water and land.

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