NDJAMENA (AFP) – Chadian rebels seized the country’s capital on Saturday after intense fighting with government forces, while President Idriss Deby Itno remained holed up in the presidential palace, a military source said.
“The whole of the city is in the hands of the rebels. It’s down to mopping-up operations,” according to the military source.
France sent an extra 150 troops to the central African country and prepared to evacuate its citizens, while French Defence Minister Herve Morin said rebels were battling government forces as they closed in on the presidential palace.
Despite the reports, Chad’s foreign minister told AFP that Deby was at the presidency and the situation was under control in the city.
“I spoke with the presidency 10 minutes ago and they assured me that the situation (was under) control,” Amad Allam-Mi said in Addis Ababa, where he was attending an African Union summit, shortly before 1030 GMT.
Heavy fighting between some 2,000 rebels opposed to Deby and government forces had raged in the capital on Saturday, a French army source said.
The rebels had entered the capital in trucks armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Intense firing during the morning had died down by midday (1100 GMT), but a column of black smoke was seen rising from near the presidential palace.
The rebels, in olive-green battledress and white armbands, were roaring around in camouflaged pick-up trucks, witnesses said, and had been welcomed with joy in some districts.
Witnesses also said the main prison in Ndjamena had been stormed and inmates released, while security sources reported some looting had taken place.
The French chief of staff announced that a combat unit of 150 extra troops had arrived in Chad, bringing to 1,450 the number permanently posted there. French forces have been assisting the government with logistics and intelligence but have not been allowed to intervene militarily in the fighting.
A spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had had a “long conversation” with Deby, and held an emergency meeting on the situation.
France also warned its nationals located there to remain indoors and prepared to evacuate them. The country has 1,500 citizens in Chad, a former French colony, with 85 percent of them in the capital.
A rebel convoy of 300 pick-ups had been advancing on Ndjamena since Monday, when they left rear bases across the border in western Sudan’s Darfur.
The offensive — the biggest since April 2006 — comes after rebel leaders Timan Erdimi, Mahamat Nouri and Adbelwahid Aboud Makaye joined forces in mid-December after a peace pact with Deby fell apart.
Fighting broke out just north of the capital Saturday morning, and witnesses later said rebels had entered the east and southern part of the city.
Deby was reportedly at the battlefront on Friday afternoon. He returned to Ndjamena after his forces failed to turn back the rebels in fighting at Massaguet around 50 kilometres (31 miles) north of the capital.
He spent the night in the presidential palace, sources close to the presidency said.
Rebel spokesman Abakar Tollimi said earlier by satellite telephone that government troops were “scattering”, adding of Deby: “He will fall today, it’s sure.”
Asked late Friday whether rebels could take the capital, Allam-Mi told AFP: “Everything is possible. We cannot rule out anything; the rebels are well armed and equipped.” He blamed Sudan for supporting the rebels.
African Union leaders meeting in Addis Ababa said the body “strongly condemns” the rebel attacks and “demands that an immediate end be put to these attacks and resulting bloodshed”.
The AU stressed it would reject any “unconstitutional change” of regime in Chad.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has expressed his concern at the fighting, and the world body has evacuated around 160 non-essential staff from Ndjamena.
The rebel offensive began the week an EU peacekeeping force was due to start deploying advance troops in Chad and neighbouring Central African Republic to protect civilians and refugees from the Darfur conflict.
The mission announced Friday a temporary delay in troop flights to Ndjamena, and an EU military spokesman said Saturday there were no plans to send members to Chad over the weekend as it was “still very unstable” on the ground.