Chad rebels fight gov't force in capital
By TOM MALITI,
Hundreds of rebels penetrated the capital of Chad on Saturday, clashing with government troops and moving on the presidential palace after a three-day advance through the oil-producing central African nation, officials and witnesses said.Chad's ambassador to Ethiopia said the capital had not fallen and that President Idriss Deby was "fine" in his palace.
Chad, a French colony until 1960, has been convulsed by civil wars and invasions since independence, and the recent discovery of oil has only increased the intensity of the struggle for power in the largely desert country about three times the size of California.The rebel force is believed to be a coalition of three groups, including the biggest led by former diplomat Mahamat Nouri, who defected 16 months ago, and a nephew of Deby's, Timan Erdimi. They long have been fighting to overthrow Deby, whom they accuse of corruption.The rebels also have said they were unhappy with the president not providing enough support to rebels in Sudan's Darfur region, some of whom are from Deby's own tribe, the Zaghawa, who are found both Chad and Sudan.
The renewed fighting has led the European Union to delay its peacekeeping mission in both Chad and neighboring Central African Republic, which was due to be up and running early next month, said Commandant Dan Harvey, speaking at the EU military headquarters in Paris on Friday. The deployment of the advance force could be postponed for days, he said.The force already has met repeated delays. It is aimed at protecting refugees from Darfur, which borders Chad, as well as protecting Chadians and Central Africans displaced by turmoil in their own countries.
The news that rebels reached Chad's capital broke just as African leaders were listening to the closing speeches of a three-day summit in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Representatives from the Chad delegation refused to comment to The Associated Press.The new head of the African Union said that the bloc would not recognize Chadian rebels should they seize power."If the rebellion succeeds, certainly we will excommunicate them from the African Union until normalcy and democratic institutions are restored in that country, if it has to happen that way at all," Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete told a news conference.
The United Nations decided to temporarily evacuate all its staff from Chad's capital because of the fighting, said William Spindler, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.The U.S. Embassy said in a bulletin on its Web site that any American citizens seeking evacuation should immediately move to the embassy. State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth said the embassy had authorized the departure of nonessential personnel and family members."At this time the U.S. is monitoring the security situation closely," Duckworth said in a statement. "The serious violence that has occurred has not been directed at any U.S. personnel or facilities. We are taking all appropriate precautions to ensure the security of U.S. mission personnel and all American citizens in Chad."
France's embassy in Chad sent messages over Radio France Internationale telling citizens to head to the Lycee Francais high school and two other locations in N'Djamena, a French diplomatic official said on condition of anonymity because government policy barred him from providing his name.Rebels said they would protect foreigners trying to evacuate N'Djamena. "We will not stop the embassies from evacuating people," Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development told the AP. "We will try to protect them if it is necessary." He was reached on a Sudanese mobile telephone number and said he was speaking from Chad's border with Sudan.
Rebel forces have been advancing on the capital for three days in about 250 pickup trucks from the direction of the border with Sudan, about 500 miles to the east of N'Djamena.A hotel operator at the Hotel le Meridien, about a mile from the headquarters of President Idriss Deby, said gunfire and explosions had been resounding through the capital since 7 a.m.The man, who would not give his name, said he had not seen any rebels. The line went dead before a reporter could get more details. Other phone lines also were dead and the information could not immediately be confirmed.
Rebels in more than a dozen vehicles drove past the Libya Hotel, which overlooks the parliament building, said a man who answered the telephone at that hotel. "I saw more than 15 vehicles and they (the rebels) were firing into the air," said the man, who also would not give his name. He said he also watched looters go into a police station opposite the hotel, stealing chairs and throwing papers on the ground. Deby himself came to power at the head of a rebellion in 1990; he has won elections since, but none of the votes were 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.
The most recent series of rebellions began in 2005 in the country's east, occurring at the same time as the conflict in Darfur saw a rise in violence. One Chadian rebel group launched a failed assault on N'Djamena, in April 2006. The governments of Chad and Sudan repeatedly exchange accusations the one is backing the other's rebel groups. U.N. officials estimate that around 3 million people have been uprooted by conflicts in the region, including the fighting in western Sudan's Darfur region and rebellions in Central African Republic. France sent more troops late Thursday to boost a longtime military presence in Chad. About 1,500 French citizens live in Chad, most in N'Djamena.
It appeared that Chad's government might be getting less help from France than during previous rebel attempts to take the capital, 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 to the city."
The difference could be that former President Jacques Chirac was leading France during the previous coup attempts, a leader who made every effort to project France as a friendly protector on the African continent. France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for a "healthier relationship," saying it will not be business as usual with France's old corrupt allies on the continent