Chad's President Idriss Deby arrives for an EU Africa Summit in Lisbon, Sunday December 9, 2007. Heavy gunfire was heard February 2, 2008 near the presidential palace in Chad, a hotel operator reached by telephone said, and rebel forces were believed to have reached the capital after a lightning advance across the desert in pickup convoys.
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.
Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said groups of rebels gathered outside the capital, N'Djamena, overnight before 1,000 to 1,500 fighters entered early Saturday and spread through the city.
A leader of Chad's main opposition alliance, which is unarmed and not associated with the rebels, said shooting erupted after rebels entered the city around 8 A.M. but appeared to die down about two hours later. Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh said about 12:45 P.M. that there were no soldiers in his neighborhood and state radio had gone off the air.
"At the moment we are not hearing any firing ... The rebels are in the city. Civilians are in the streets. They are watching what is happening," said Saleh.
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 the conflict-wracked Sudanese region of Darfur, which borders Chad, as well as protecting Chadians and Central Africans displaced by turmoil in their own countries.
The new head of the African Union said Saturday 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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The French and American governments told their citizens to assemble in secure locations.
The US 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 US is monitoring the security situation closely," Duckworth said in a statement. "The serious violence that has occurred has not been directed at any US personnel or facilities. We are taking all appropriate precautions to ensure the security of US 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.
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 were also 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.
Rebel forces have been advancing on the capital for three days in about 250 pickup trucks after crossing the border from Sudan, some 510 miles to the east of N'Djamena.
Clashes broke out Friday morning near Massakori, northeast of N'Djamena, and moved closer to the capital to Massaguet, said Burkhard, the French military spokesman. France-Info radio said helicopters bombarded rebel positions.
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.
The most recent series of rebellions began in 2005 in the country's east, occurring at the same time as the conflict in neighboring Sudan's western region of 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.
UN 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. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris late Friday to discuss the situation in Chad, his office said.
Air France canceled its scheduled daily flight to N'Djamena on Friday because its personnel there "had no access to the airport," an airline spokesman said. The spokesman said it was not clear why access to the airport was blocked.
(China Daily Via Agencies February 3, 2008)