Chadian Rebels Urge Cease-Fire As Push Falters

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 5 -- Chad's rebel leaders called for a cease-fire Tuesday as their attempted coup against President Idriss Déby continued to falter in the face of military resistance and international condemnation. Red Cross officials in Geneva said the recent fighting had caused more than 1,000 casualties.

With the rebels confined to the outskirts of N'Djamena, the capital, Déby's government said it had the situation under control. France, which has 1,900 troops in Chad, a former colony, declared its willingness to use them to protect the government, as allowed by a U.N. Security Council resolution approved on Monday.

As fighting eased, humanitarian groups warned that conditions continued to deteriorate for hundreds of thousands of Darfurian refugees in Chad's east and for tens of thousands of N'Djamena residents who had fled in recent days for neighboring Cameroon.

Human rights groups in Chad, one of the world's poorest nations, denounced what they called increasingly aggressive government tactics, including detention of unarmed opposition leaders.

The human cost of the attempted coup remained uncertain. Red Cross officials who estimated more than 1,000 casualties had no word on how many of those were fatalities. The Associated Press quoted Chadian Red Cross officials on the scene as saying that hundreds of people had died.

The rebels say they are trying to overturn a brutal dictatorship; the government maintains that the rebels are backed by Chad's eastern neighbor Sudan and that their attack represents a declaration of war. Foreign analysts say the fighting is in part a struggle to gain control of Chad's oil production.

Last week, the rebels raced west across the Chadian desert in hundreds of trucks mounted with machine guns to reach the capital, where they opened fire on Déby's palace. The attack faltered on Sunday, and on Monday, France received U.N. authority to aid the government.

On Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned of possible military action if the rebels resumed fighting: "If France must do its duty, it will do so . . . Let no one doubt it."

Rebel leaders announced interest in a cease-fire. "Conscious of the suffering of the Chad population and respecting the peace initiatives of fraternal countries Libya and Burkina Faso, the forces of national resistance give their assent to an immediate cease-fire," rebel spokesman Abderaman Koulamallah said on Radio France International.

Mahamat Nouri, head of the rebel faction known as the Union of Forces for Democracy, told the radio: "Our biggest handicap is the French army, not Idriss Déby. Without France, we are ready to chase Déby away today." He said his group was "not ready to return to Sudan."

Déby did not immediately agree to the cease-fire offer, though N'Djamena fell largely quiet, reports said.

Tens of thousands of Chadians, meanwhile, were huddled in northern Cameroon, having fled across bridges that span the river border at N'Djamena. Aid officials had begun to work in the region, assessing needs for food, shelter and medical care.

Conditions also were problematic in eastern Chad, where hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by the conflict in Sudan's neighboring Darfur region live in camps. The attack on Chad's capital and the resulting instability had disrupted the flow of food and other supplies to the region.

"If we do not manage to provide aid at sufficient levels, the humanitarian crisis might become a humanitarian catastrophe," said Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for Chad's office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

Government officials spoke with increasing confidence about the coup attempt having been defeated. "All threat to the security of the city of N'Djamena can now be put aside," Chad's foreign minister, Ahmad Allam-mi, told reporters in Paris, according to the Associated Press.

Nine foreign journalists who were detained on landing at the capital's international airport Monday were released Tuesday, according to a French military spokesman, Capt. Christophe Prazuck. The group included reporters for the Associated Press, the New York Times and a French television station.

The slowing of combat did nothing to ease the underlying tensions in the volatile heart of Africa. Chad and Sudan remain bitter enemies, and Sudan accuses Chad of supporting rebels who operate in Sudanese territory.

In Washington, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters the governments of Chad and Sudan must "end the support of these reciprocal rebel groups and allow the international community in to ensure people can be resettled and humanitarian assistance can get in place."

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