Chadian rebels said they overwhelmed government troops Sunday and seized an eastern town in the Central African nation, an area housing more than 400,000 refugees along the border with Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region.
Rebel spokesman Abderaman Koulamallah said he had no other information because he had been fighting all day in N’Djamena, the capital, where rebels were battling for a second day to oust President Idriss Deby.
“We defeated the garrison there and took Adre at around 4 p.m.,” said Koulamallah.
There was no way to confirm the rebel report.
The U.N. refugee agency has 12 camps in that area for 420,000 refugees from Darfur and Chadians displaced in the spillover from the violence in Sudan.
The rebels arrived on the capital’s outskirts Friday after a three-day push across the desert from Chad’s eastern border with Sudan. Backed by 250 pickup trucks mounted with machine guns, between 1,000 and 1,500 insurgents entered the city early Saturday, quickly spreading through the streets.
'Bloody and chaotic' in capital "Nobody can say who will win," said a French military spokesman, Capt. Christophe Prazuck. France has a long-standing military presence in Chad, a former colony.
Prazuck said the fighting resumed around dawn Sunday, and government forces were using tanks and helicopter gunships to try to push out the rebels, who were battling back with assault weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.
A foreign aid worker described the scene in N’Djamena on Sunday as “bloody and chaotic” with bodies littering the streets and looters breaking into shops during lulls in the fighting.
Gunfire could be heard coming from the area around the presidential palace, said the aid worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk with reporters.
The U.S. State Department condemned the rebel’s attempt to seize power.
“We call for calm in the capital and support the (African Union’s) call for an immediate end to armed attacks and to refrain from violence that might harm innocent civilians,” spokesman Sean McCormack said.
The violence has endangered a $300 million global aid operation supporting millions in Chad, and also delayed the deployment of the European Union’s peacekeeping mission to both Chad and neighboring Central African Republic.
Oil fuels power struggles
Chad has been convulsed by civil wars and invasions since independence from France in 1960. The recent discovery of oil has only increased the intensity of the power struggles in the largely desert country, and another Chadian rebel group launched a failed assault on N’Djamena in 2006.
The rebels currently fighting in the city are believed to be a coalition of three groups. The biggest is led by Mahamat Nouri, a former diplomat who defected 16 months ago, and a nephew of Deby’s, Timan Erdimi. They have long been fighting to overthrow Deby, whom they accuse of corruption. Deby, himself a soldier, has seen many defect from the army, where morale is low.
The rebels are also angry with the president for not providing what they consider enough support to insurgents in Sudan’s Darfur region, some of whom are from Deby’s own tribe, the Zaghawa, who are found in both Chad and Sudan.
The African Union, holding a summit in Ethiopia, said it would not recognize the rebels should they seize power, and selected Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso to try to broker a peace deal.
Libya's official news agency, JANA, reported overnight that Nouri had agreed to a cease-fire Saturday after speaking to Gadhafi. But the rebels denied any truce had been struck.
France condemned the rebel push on the capital, and backed the African mediation effort.
The United Nations was temporarily evacuating Chad and the U.S. Embassy said it had authorized the departure of its nonessential staff.
China's foreign ministry said Sunday that most of its citizens had evacuated and only nine embassy staff and a few other Chinese remained in N'Djamena.
China has been expanding its presence in Africa in recent years in the pursuit of energy, natural resources for its growing economy, and markets for its goods.
Despite efforts to get foreigners out of the country, two Americans with U.S.-based group Stop Genocide were among about 50 people at N'Djamena's Le Meridien hotel when it was attacked Saturday, said the group's spokesman, Cory Preston.
In a blog for the organization's Web site, founder Gabriel Stauring described parts of the wall falling around him as French soldiers, who were guarding the hotel, traded fire with unknown gunmen.
French officials said foreigners wishing to leave Chad were being transferred to Libreville, Gabon, starting Saturday night. Nearly 400 had been evacuated by midday Sunday, and about 600 were gathered at safety points guarded by French soldiers, said the military spokesman, Prazuck.
France's military has about 1,400 personnel in Chad, including 1,200 in the capital. Paris sent more troops Thursday to boost its presence, although Prazuck said six Mirage fighter jets based in N'Djamena were ordered out of the city Sunday to prevent their being damaged in the fighting.
France's role unclear
It was not clear if French forces would intervene to stop the fighting — a move that could jeopardize the planned EU peacekeeping mission to the country.
"If they were to intervene, the neutrality of the European intervention in Chad is over and it would blow France's policy on European defense," said Roland Marchal, a Chad expert and researcher at the French Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales.
Chad's government might be getting less help from France than it did during previous rebel attacks, said Henri Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.
Previously, "the French gave them intelligence using aerial reconnaissance, and that allowed the Chad government to act," Boshoff told The Associated Press. "But it looks like this time it's too late, the rebels got too close."
The difference could be that former President Jacques Chirac had tried to project the image of France as a friendly protector on the African continent. The new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for a "healthier relationship," saying it would not be business as usual with France's old corrupt allies on the continent.
The most recent rebellions in Chad began in 2005 in the east, erupting at the same time as the conflict in Sudan's western region of Darfur. The governments of Chad and Sudan accuse one another of backing the other's rebel groups.
Deby came to power at the head of a rebellion in 1990; he has won elections since, but none deemed free or fair. He brought a semblance of peace after three decades of civil war and an invasion by Libya, but became increasingly isolated.