Rebel Forces Roll Into Chad's Capital, Battle For Control

Chad's President Idriss Deby arrives for an EU Africa Summit in Lisbon, Sunday Dec. 9, 2007. Heavy gunfire was heard Saturday Feb. 2, 2008 near the presidential palace in Chad, a hotel operator reached by telephone said, and rebel forces were believed to have reached the capital after a lightning advance across the desert in pickup convoys. A hotel operator at the Hotel le Meridien, a couple of kilometers (about a mile) from the headquarters of President Idriss Deby said he could hear the gunfire. The line went dead before a reporter could get more details.
Chad's President Idriss Deby arrives for an EU Africa Summit in Lisbon, Sunday Dec. 9, 2007. Heavy gunfire was heard Saturday Feb. 2, 2008 near the presidential palace in Chad, a hotel operator reached by telephone said, and rebel forces were believed to have reached the capital after a lightning advance across the desert in pickup convoys. A hotel operator at the Hotel le Meridien, a couple of kilometers (about a mile) from the headquarters of President Idriss Deby said he could hear the gunfire. The line went dead before a reporter could get more details. (Photo: Paulo Duarte - AP)
[Map: N'Djamena, Chad]
Map: N'Djamena, Chad
By Stephanie McCrummen and Robin Wright
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 3, 2008

NAIROBI, Feb. 2 -- After a three-day advance across the desert, hundreds of rebels fought their way into the capital of the oil-rich nation of Chad on Saturday, and as night fell, it remained unclear whether the government or the rebels were in control.

Rebel trucks rolled through the streets of the capital, N'Djamena, and residents shut themselves indoors as gunfire echoed through the city, witnesses said.

A spokesman for the rebels, Abderamane Koullamalah, told Radio France International that they had offered to coordinate the departure of President Idriss D¿by with the African Union to "avoid a pointless bloodbath."

But the Chadian ambassador to Ethiopia, Cherif Mahamat Zene, insisted that the government remained in control. He said D¿by and his cabinet were "fine" and repeated a long-standing accusation that neighboring Sudan was supplying the rebels with weapons.

The rebels had advanced from the direction of the Sudanese border.

"Sudan is the one behind this attack," Zene said from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack condemned the coup attempt and said the rebels had entered "from outside the country," a clear reference to Sudan. "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," he said.

U.S. officials said that the city had not fallen to the rebels but that the fighting was intense.

"The situation remains too unsettled to project the outcome," said Greg Garland, the State Department's spokesman for Africa. "We continue to monitor conditions closely."

The government of Chad, a former French colony with a population of almost 10 million and a newly booming oil industry, has in recent years battled a variety of rebel groups along its volatile eastern border with Sudan, forcing an estimated 170,000 Chadians to flee their homes for sprawling camps in the scrubby desert.

The rebel groups, one of which is led by D¿by's nephew, accuse the president of corruption but appear to be driven more by opportunism than ideology, according to analysts. They have shifted alliances and fought one another from time to time, often losing favor with the local populations they have displaced.

But D¿by, who came to power in a 1990 coup and owns several lavish palaces in the capital, is also highly unpopular among Chadians, who believe he has stolen the country's oil wealth, estimated at more than $200 million annually. Instead of using the money to fund desperately needed schools, health clinics and roads, D¿by has bought guns, attack helicopters and armored cars for his own protection.


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