Home | News    Sunday 26 November 2006

Chad rebels attack key town, army withdraws

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Nov 25, 2006 (N’DJAMENA) — Chadian rebels attacked the eastern regional capital of Abeche on Saturday in their latest strike against President Idriss Deby’s rule, wresting control from government forces who withdrew and surrounded the town.

Rebels of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) took control of Abeche. Aid workers and diplomats reported looting as government troops fled.

A second rebel group, the Rally of Democratic Forces (RAFD), said it had seized the town of Biltine, some 60 km to the north, just a few hours later after light clashes with government troops. It was not immediately possible to confirm this.

Chad’s army said it had pulled back from Abeche to prevent civilian casualties after the early morning attack by several armed convoys.

Abeche lies on the main road to Chad’s capital, some 600 km to the west, and is 160 km (100 miles) from the border with Sudan.

Hundreds of people were killed in April when rebel columns reached N’Djamena after a lighting raid across the arid central African oil-producer.

"In order to spare civilian lives, the Chadian armed forces have deployed all around the town of Abeche," read a statement signed by General Adoum Gabgalia, deputy head of the chiefs of staff.

Chad repeated its accusations that Khartoum supports the rebels, who have carried out a number of attacks in the east in recent months. Sudan denies aiding the rebels.

Aid workers in Abeche had been woken by the sound of intense automatic rifle fire and heavier weapons coming from the outskirts of the town. This lasted for around an hour.

A stream of wounded troops, from both government and rebel forces, arrived at hospitals in the dusty town, and looters took to the streets, ransacking shops after the government troops pulled out, diplomats and aid workers said.

"The situation has been calm since this morning, with just the occasional shot being fired. The rebels remain in control of the town," Claire Bourgeois, head of the United Nation’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in eastern Chad, told Reuters. "The rebels have assured us they will not harm humanitarian workers."

FRENCH FORCES

The French military, which has forces stationed in Abeche under a defence cooperation accord with the government, was bringing its citizens to its base and had offered humanitarian workers sanctuary there, diplomats said.

"The French have secured the air base and all flights have been grounded," said one foreign diplomat, adding the Chadian army barracks had been plundered.

Diplomats said the Chadian military appeared to have pulled back toward Oum-Hadjer, some 120 km on the road toward N’Djamena. Chad’s Defence Minister Bichara Issa Djadallah had told Reuters that reinforcements were heading toward Abeche.

Eastern Chad, where UNHCR runs camps for thousands of refugees from Sudan’s Darfur and for displaced Chadians, has descended into lawlessness, with frequent rebel attacks and incursions by Janjaweed militia from across the border.

France, which stations some Mirage fighters at its Abeche base, has in the past backed the Deby government against the rebels with logistics and intelligence support.

(Reuters)

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