Government troops repelled a rebel attack on the Chadian capital on Thursday and the country’s president went on state-run radio to assure residents he remains in control of the impoverished African country.
Following three hours of fighting, which included attack helicopters, tanks and artillery, Deby said his troops had defeated the rebels after they attempted to infiltrate N’Djamena before dawn.
“The situation is under control,” Deby said on the radio.
An Associated Press reporter could only hear sporadic gunfire around the capital following the announcement. Residents in the eastern part of the city said fighting there had completely stopped, while in the northeast, residents said government troops were conducting mop-up operations, pursuing suspected rebels.
Deby also reiterated his claim that the rebels, known as the United Force for Change, are actually mercenaries hired by Sudan to overthrow him, a charge the Sudanese have denied.
“In the hours to come we will gather all of the evidence that the Sudanese government is behind the rebels,” Deby said, who added he would appear at an election rally later in the day.
Early morning battles
A presidential election is scheduled for May 3.
The fighting began before dawn, when residents of eastern neighborhoods awoke to heavy gunfire. The sounds appeared to be coming from a defensive position constructed Wednesday on the road leading into N’Djamena (pronounced IN-jah-MEEN-ah) from the east.
Later, Chadian attack helicopters fired rockets at rebel positions around the capital and tank fire and mortar rounds echoed through the city as government troops attempted to hold off the rebels. Columns of thick black smoke could be seen rising from the center of the city.
French aircraft heard
French fighter jets based in N’Djamena could also be heard, but it was unclear if they were overhead or just revving their engines at the airfield, an Associated Press reporter said. The sounds of fighting could be heard coming from the north, south and southeast of the city.
The French government has said in the past it will not directly intervene in internal politics, but would provide logistical support to the government. France sent 150 troops Wednesday to bolster its contingent of about 1,200 already in Chad to protect hundreds of French citizens living there, the French Defense Ministry said in a statement in Paris.
The French Defense Ministry said fighter jets carried out reconnaissance and intelligence missions on Wednesday to evaluate the threat, but could not immediately say whether they did the same Thursday. Such flights are part of France’s overall mission to protect its citizens.
French troops based in Chad had also taken up positions around government office buildings late Wednesday in anticipation of a potential rebel attack. Chadian troops had begun constructing defenses around the city and residents stocked up on food and water.
The rebels’ first attack deep inside Chad came Tuesday in the central town of Mongo.
Scores of defectors from the Chadian army have joined rebel groups in their bid to overthrow Deby, who himself seized power in a 1990 coup and has seen his authority undermined by violence in neighboring Sudan and an apparent struggle for control of newly discovered oil reserves.
This week’s fighting in Chad has revived fears that the Darfur conflict in neighboring Sudan has the potential to undermine the region where Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic meet.
Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur erupted into large-scale violence in early 2003 when ethnic African tribes took up arms, accusing the Arab-dominated central government of neglect. The government is accused of responding by unleashing Arab tribal militias known as Janjaweed to murder and rape civilians and lay waste to villages — a charge it denies.
Sudan has accused Chad of harboring Darfur rebels, while Chad has said Sudan backs Chadian insurgents.
The instability in the lawless border region has made it easier for rebels to organize. The crisis has sent an exodus of Sudanese refugees into Chad, and Deby has been accused of doing too little to help Sudanese in Darfur who share ethnic links with many Chadians.
Since October, the rebels have been skirmishing with government forces along the border with Sudan, which is more than 600 miles east of the capital, N’Djamena.
The leaders of Sudan and Chad signed a Feb. 9 peace agreement to end increasing tension over Darfur but it has yet to resolve the chaos on the ground.
Chad, an arid country three times the size of California, is home to about 10 million people, mostly of Arab origin. The country became independent from France in 1960, but has been wracked by conflict for most of its history.