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Chadian rebels claim to be "at the gates of Ndjamena"

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January 31, 2008 (NDJAMENA) — Rebels in Chad claimed Thursday to be "at the gates of Ndjamena", the capital, while government troops who had headed east to intercept them were back securing the city, military sources said.

"We are at the gates of Ndjamena," one of three allied rebel leaders, Timan Erdimi, told AFP, saying a rebel column of 300 pick-up trucks each carrying from 10 to 15 fighters had "divided into several groups around Ndjamena".

"There’s no fighting for now," he said by satellite phone.

A military source confirmed the rebels had split into groups and said the "ANT (Chadian national army) has changed strategy, it has returned to form a belt around the town."

Government soldiers, led by President Idriss Beby Itno, earlier drove east to intercept the rebels, but the head of state and a small escort returned to Ndjamena in the afternoon.

The rebel alliance led by Mahamat Nouri, Timan Erdimi and Adbelwahid Aboud Makaye, moved on Ndjamena, after crossing southern Chad from rear bases in west Sudan, the day the advance guard of an EU peacekeeping force was due to begin deploying.

This EUFOR mission is to protect refugees from the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur, just over Chad’s eastern border, as well as Chadians and people of the neighbouring Central African Republic displaced by internal conflict.

France already has 1,000 troops in Chad, mainly in Ndjamena and the eastern airbase town of Abeche, where the headquarters of this European force is being built.

Observers had feared that rebels could begin a new offensive before March. "They have a window to fight before the effective deployment of the European force fixes positions on the ground, which the Sudanese want," one told AFP.

Both sides said French military reconnaissance planes, part of a permanent force stationed in the former colony, were flying over the ground movements to keep Chad’s army informed.

About 234,000 Darfur refugees, along with 179,000 displaced eastern Chadians and 43,000 Central Africans uprooted by strife and rebellion in the north of their country, are housed in camps in the region.

The last clash in eastern Chad claimed several hundred lives on both sides in November 2007, and rebels last moved on Ndjamena in April 2006.

(AFP)

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