Rebels Fight Troops in Chad Capital

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 14, 2006

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, April 13 -- Heavy shelling and machine-gun fire echoed through the capital of Chad on Thursday as rebels based in the Darfur region of western Sudan marched into the city and battled army troops, according to witnesses and news reports.

State television broadcast images of bloody bodies of rebels, some still wrenching, piled on the steps of the National Assembly in N'Djamena, the capital. Witnesses reported seeing bodies in other areas of the city, news services said, and residents could be seen fleeing as helicopters hovered above.

After several hours of fighting, President Idriss Deby declared victory in an address broadcast on radio and television. "The situation in N'Djamena is under the control of the defense and security forces," he said.

But diplomats and regional analysts expressed little hope that the crisis would fade quickly in this oil-rich but destitute country of about 10 million in north-central Africa.

Chad has had a long and complex history of civil war and unrest since it gained independence from France in 1960. Deby seized power in a coup in 1990 and since then has been criticized for human rights abuses in the country and reneging on promises to the World Bank to use oil profits for development. He now says he will use the oil revenue to beef up his military to defend the government.

Deby was once backed by Sudan, but a crisis in the Darfur region led to a bitter feud. Deby now accuses Sudan of supporting the rebel group, known as the United Front for Change, and allowing it to set up camps in Darfur. Sudan denies this.

The rebel group is made up of army deserters who say they are frustrated by the lack of progress in Chad. Some of the higher-ranking defectors, many of whom are Deby's relatives, are also angry about the corruption surrounding the oil revenue, human rights groups say.

The rebel leader, Mahamat Nour, told reporters that he believed he has enough support to take over the government by the weekend.

At the same time, Darfur rebels, who have been battling government-backed Arab militiamen known as the Janjaweed, have set up bases in eastern Chad and at times have received housing and food from Chadian officials. Additionally, more than 200,000 Sudanese refugees have fled into Chad because of the upheaval in Darfur, which has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

"Chad's internal crisis is closely linked to the Darfur conflict," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The international community must warn Khartoum that it will be held responsible for any abuses against civilians committed by its proxies."

Already, there has been an increase in attacks on camps housing Darfur refugees. After the fighting this week between Chadian rebels and government forces, gunmen entered and briefly took control of the Goz Amer refugee camp in eastern Chad on Monday afternoon, forcing the United Nations to reduce staffing levels in some field offices.

The region is very fragile, and the situation is "alarming," said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

"I urgently appeal to all sides in this political upheaval to respect the civilian character of the refugee camps and to leave in peace those who have already fled the terrors of Darfur," Guterres said in a statement.

France, which supports Deby and has significant financial interests in the country, sent 150 troops to Chad this week to augment its contingent of about 1,200 soldiers to protect about 1,500 French citizens, the French Defense Ministry said in a statement.

French fighter jets swooped over the country Wednesday and Thursday and fired warning shots at the rebels, according to news reports. It was unclear whether any civilians were injured.

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