- Chad - European Union - Sudan
Rebel forces in Chad said on Thursday they shot down a government helicopter in a fresh offensive from the east aimed at overthrowing President Idriss Deby.
But they offered to call off the advance if France and the European Union, which have supported Deby’s rule over the landlocked oil producer, pressed him into holding all-inclusive peace talks with rebel groups and civilian opponents.
There was no immediate reaction from the Chadian government nor any clear independent confirmation of the rebels’ statement that their columns had pushed westwards “deep inside” the eastern Dar Sila region of Chad.
However, Irish troops stationed in east Chad as part of an EU protection force (EUFOR) for U.N.-run refugee camps said they had received reports of combat at Modeina near the Sudan border between rebel ground forces and Chadian government aircraft.
A spokesman for the Irish troops said two Chadian helicopters were hit by ground fire from rebel anti-aircraft guns cannon one crash-landed, while the other landed safely.
Abderaman Koulamallah of the rebel National Alliance told Reuters four rebel columns had moved westwards, hoping to topple Deby after a February attack on the capital N’Djamena failed to.
“We plan to carry the war to the interior of the country,” said Koulamallah, whose Democratic Union for Change (UDC) group belongs to the insurgent alliance.
He said he was speaking by telephone from France, but that he was in contact with rebel military commanders in Chad.
Koulamallah said the rebels were prepared to call off their offensive if France and the European Union forced Deby to agree to round table talks on Chad’s political situation and future.
“If France and the European Union get involved to guarantee an accord, we are ready not to go to war,” he said.
The rebels, who Chad’s government says are backed by Sudan, have fought a guerrilla war for more than two years to try to overthrow Deby. They denounce him as dictatorial and corrupt.
Koulamallah said the rebels wanted French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who pledged strong support for Deby after the February rebel assault on the capital, to host a peace conference.
In Thursday’s clash in the Dar Sila region, the rebel forces used anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks to fire back at two government helicopters that attacked them from the air. One helicopter was shot down, Koulamallah said.
TWO HELICOPTERS “HIT”
Commandant Stephen Morgan, spokesman for the Irish 97th Infantry Battalion based at Goz-Beida in eastern Chad, said the reported clash took place 70 km (40 miles) northeast of the Irish base, so they had no details of casualties.
But he added: “I can confirm that a Chadian helicopter has been taken down just outside Abeche near the airfield in what appears to be a controlled crash-landing due to damage sustained from ground fire from 23-millimetre anti-aircraft weapons”.
“There were two aircraft that sustained damage but the second one managed to land,” he said.
Fighting killed several hundred people in February when rebel forces raced across the country and attacked N’Djamena.
The rebels withdrew after the government and military of former colonial power France came out strongly in support of Deby, who himself seized power in an eastern revolt in 1990.
A fresh Chadian rebel offensive against Deby had been widely expected since Sudanese Darfuri insurgents attacked the Sudanese capital Khartoum in May. Both countries accuse each other of supporting rebel groups hostile to each others’ governments.
France has military aircraft and troops stationed in Chad under a defence cooperation treaty, under which Paris provides intelligence, logistical and medical help to Chad’s government.
In their statement, the Chadian rebels urged France not to involve itself directly in the conflict but to act as mediator.