France says ready to help Chad repel rebels

/ Source: The Associated Press

Chad’s capital was mostly quiet Tuesday as rebels seeking to oust the president kept to the fringes of the city and signaled they were ready for a cease-fire. France said it was prepared to intervene militarily to help the government repel the insurgents if necessary.

Scattered gunfire rang out around the capital, N’Djamena, but the rebels who battled the army over the weekend were keeping to the edges of the city, French military spokesman Capt. Christophe Prazuck said.

Chad’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Allam-mi said the rebels had been chased to 30 miles outside N’Djamena.

“N’Djamena is calm,” Allam-mi told reporters in Paris after talks with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. “I think they are awaiting some reinforcements but all threat to the security of the city of N’Djamena can now be put aside.”

Chad’s government has accused neighboring Sudan of backing the rebels to prevent the deployment of a European peacekeeping force in a region along their border where more than 400,000 refugees are living. A Chadian official declared the fighting a “direct war” with the Sudanese president.

Bodies in the streets
The death toll from four days of violence was not known, but the Red Cross said more than 1,000 were wounded and as many as 30,000 had fled N’Djamena. Bodies lay on the streets, which were also littered with the hulks of burned out tanks and other abandoned vehicles.

The European Union said Tuesday it was sending $2.9 million in humanitarian aid to help refugees fleeing the fighting in Chad.

The fighting is the latest chapter in the oil-rich African country’s long-standing conflict. It has threatened to further destabilize an already violent swath of Africa that borders Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region.

Libya’s U.N. ambassador, Giadalla Ettalhi, said Tuesday the rebels had signaled they were ready to accept a cease-fire.

Ettalhi said Libya, which along with the Republic of Congo has been authorized by the African Union to try to broker a peace deal, had “entered into contact with the different parties, and I think you have heard today that the rebel groups have declared that they are ready for ceasing fire.” He did not provide details.

Sarkozy: France ready for military operation
On Monday, the U.N. Security Council authorized France and other nations to help Chad’s government. France has 1,900 soldiers backed by fighter jets in its former colony, said Prazuck.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Tuesday that France was ready to launch a military operation against the rebels if necessary.

“If France must do its duty, it will do so,” Sarkozy told reporters in La Rochelle, France, in response to a question on a possible French military operation in Chad. “Let no one doubt it.”

But French Foreign Minister Kouchner stressed that France had no intention for the time being of stepping up its operations, “especially since peace seems to be on the agenda more than it was two days ago.”

Allam-mi said his country had been successfully fighting the rebels, “and for the moment, we don’t need extra help.”

Republic of Congo said a group of mediators that had been set to leave for Chad Tuesday did not depart because they were still waiting for authorization from the Chadian government.

Rebel chief Mahamat Nouri told French radio Europe-1 that French aircraft had been firing on the rebels from Sunday night until early Tuesday.

Prazuck said there was “not the slightest reality” to the charge, saying France removed all its planes from N’Djamena early Sunday and that the only French aircraft in the area were helicopters used to protect convoys or in evacuations.

Chad accuses Sudan of aiding rebels
Sarkozy also said French troops not been involved in the fighting except Friday night, when they opened fire to protect French civilians.

Sarkozy dismissed as “absolutely not exact” rebel claims that French forces had killed civilians.

Chadian officials have repeatedly accused Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir of supporting the rebels, and even deploying Sudanese troops in rebel offensives in eastern Chad.

“We are in direct war with Omar Bashir,” Gen. Mahamat Ali Abdallah Nassour said Tuesday on Radio France Internationale.

Some 1,000-1,500 insurgents equipped with pickup trucks mounted with machine guns arrived on the city’s outskirts Friday after a three-day push across the desert from Chad’s eastern border with Sudan. They entered the city early Saturday, reportedly trapping President Idriss Deby in his palace.

Government soldiers launched a fierce counterattack Sunday, strafing rebel positions with helicopter gunships and bombarding them with tank cannons. By early Monday, the rebels had pulled back, insisting it was a tactical withdrawal to give civilians a chance to get away.

Thousands flee to Cameroon
As many as 20,000 people fled across the Chari River into Cameroon, the U.N. said. The Red Cross said the number of people fleeing has been growing steadily, and could already have reached 30,000.

“As of this morning, frightened people were still crossing in a continuous flow,” Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency told reporters in Geneva.

French soldiers used armored vehicles to evacuate French nationals and other foreigners over the weekend. About 1,000 foreigners had been evacuated by Tuesday, with 245 remaining under French protection at their military camp or other protected sites, Prazuck said.

Human Rights Watch said it had reports that Chadian security forces were detaining political opposition leaders, “using the fighting as a pretext for settling scores with the unarmed opposition,” according to acting Africa director, Georgette Gagnon.

The violence endangers a $300 million global aid operation supporting millions in Chad. The U.N.’s World Food Program said it could disrupt delivery of food to 420,000 Darfur refugees and Chadians displaced by violence.

Deby rose to power just as the rebels are trying to, heading an insurgent force that captured N’Djamena in 1990. He has won two elections since then, neither considered free or fair, but has enjoyed strong French support.

The rebels are a coalition of three groups whose leaders include Mahamat Nouri, a former defense minister, and Timan Erdimi, a nephew of Deby who was his chief of staff. They accuse Deby of corruption and embezzling millions in oil revenue.


Associated Press writers John Leicester in Paris, Alexander G. Higgins and Frank Jordans in Geneva, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Rosenberg, Michelle Faul and Heidi Vogt in Nairobi contributed to this report.