N’DJAMENA, Chad — Chad’s president said his government was in control of the entire country Wednesday, speaking publicly for the first time since rebels tried to overthrow him.
Idriss Deby wore a military uniform as he received reporters in the presidential palace. He denied reports that he had been injured as the capital of the Central African nation was besieged, spreading his arms wide and saying, “Look at me, I’m fine.”
“We are in total control, not only of the capital, but of all the country,” Deby said.
“The security forces have repulsed the aggressors. The mercenaries directed by Sudan have been forced to flee,” he added.
Pointing the finger at Sudan
Chad has repeatedly said that neighboring Sudan is backing the rebels who launched a coup attempt Friday, sparking a weekend of battles in N’Djamena, in an attempt to prevent the deployment of a European force to protect Darfur refugees. Sudan has denied involvement, but has long resisted such a force.
Meanwhile, the relief group Save the Children said Wednesday it was running low on food and other supplies for refugee camps in the east. No civilian planes — including aid flights — have been allowed into Chad since the fighting started.
Programs serving more than half a million people, including displaced Chadians and Sudanese refugees, could fall apart if an emergency aid corridor isn’t opened quickly, the group said.
Deby said the Chadian army was chasing the rebels, who were fleeing east.
“We are going to catch them before they enter Sudan,” he said, speaking for about half an hour while seated in a chair with the flags of Chad and the African Union displayed behind him.
'Column of support' for rebels
However, French Defense Minister Herve Morin, who flew to Chad Wednesday in a show of support for the former colony’s government, suggested that the rebels had not been completely routed.
“There is a column of support that is en route, but it is moving slowly,” he told France-Inter radio without elaborating.
Rebel phones went unanswered despite repeated calls Wednesday, though Libya’s U.N. ambassador has said that rebel groups told Libyan officials they were ready for a cease-fire.
Chad’s capital was besieged Friday by rebels in pickup trucks who had advanced in a matter of days from their eastern bases near the Sudan border to N’Djamena in the southwest of the country. A weekend of deadly battles ensued, forcing thousands to flee and leaving roads littered with bodies. Rebels withdrew sometime late Sunday night and the city was quiet Wednesday morning.
Deby suggested that his government had been weakened. “I am working with less than a quarter of the members of my government,” he said. “I do not know where the rest have gone to.”
“There are traitors. When the time comes we shall work on that issue,” he said.
Desperate need for medical personnel
Health officials pleaded for doctors and nurses to return to N’Djamena to help the wounded.
No death toll has been given, but Chadian Red Cross officials said hundreds of civilians had been shot and killed since Saturday and the international Red Cross has said more than 1,000 were wounded.
The U.N. refugee agency said some 20,000 people had fled by crossing the Chari River into neighboring Cameroon since Monday. About 1,000 have taken refuge in northern Nigeria, that country’s Red Cross said Wednesday.
Chadian soldiers reopened two bridges that span the Chari River after having blocked civilians from using them to flee on Tuesday. For the first time Wednesday, more people were crossing the bridges toward N’Djamena than away, apparently heeding the government’s call.
No money, no food
“We don’t have any money and there’s no food. We have been sleeping on the ground,” said a man named Nicholas, who declined to give his last name as he walked on.
An Associated Press reporter saw mostly small groups of men heading toward N’Djamena. Many said they had left wives and children waiting on the Cameroon side while they returned to protect houses from looters and assess the security situation in the capital.
Eric Mbaye said churches were overflowing with refugees on the Cameroon side of the river, and he decided it would be better to try to return to his home in N’Djamena.
The rebels accuse Deby of corruption and embezzling millions in oil revenue. While many Chadians may share that assessment, the uprising appears to be a power struggle within the elite that has long controlled Chad; rebellion leaders include Mahamat Nouri, a former defense minister, and Timan Erdimi, a nephew of Deby who was his chief of staff.
The United States asked Sudan to halt any possible aid to the rebels and use its influence to get the rebels to withdraw. The African Union asked officials from Republic of Congo and Libya to mediate.
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