Chad rebels withdrew from the eastern town of Goz Beida they had briefly occuped. Chadian officials claim they are fleeing, but rebel spokesman Kbderaman Koulamallah says they are rejoining other forces in the region ahead of further fighting.
European Union peacekeepers returned fire after coming under attack in eastern Chad Saturday, a spokesman said, as rebel forces briefly seized a nearby town.
Rebel militia took the town of Goz Beida in southeast Chad, about 75 kilometres (46 miles) from the border with Sudan, on Saturday morning before withdrawing later in the day, promising a bigger confrontation on Sunday.
The firefight, in which no EUFOR troops were injured, took place shortly after noon about four kilometres north of Goz Beida, where troops were protecting the refugee camp at Djabal, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Axelos told AFP.
"Engaged by unidentified armed elements, the soldiers fired back," Axelos said.
EUFOR spokesman Axelos said that UN agencies asked the European troops for assistance and that "the EUFOR soldiers are currently proceeding to pick up the humanitarian workers with eight armoured vehicles."
There are around 500 Irish and 70 Dutch troops from the EUFOR contingent in the region, whose mission is to protect civilians and refugees fleeing the violence in the western Sudanese Darfur, just over the border.
The rebel forces left Goz Beida to rejoin other rebel soldiers in the area, said their spokesman Abderaman Koulamallah, speaking by telephone.
Koulamallah said the rebel force had some 500 to 600 vehicles and 7,000 to 8,000 men at their disposal, nearly double the number of a similar offensive in February.
"They (the rebels) are not far away. The biggest clashes will probably come tomorrow (Sunday) with government forces," he added.
"The rebels were only passing through Goz Beida and were not staying," said an independent local source.
But Chad's Communications Minister Mahamat Hissene, who is also the government's spokesmen, said the rebels were in flight.
"A column of mercenaries carried out a strike on Goz Beida before fleeing to the east, where they were pursued by the defence and security forces," he said late Saturday.
He accused the rebels of having fire indiscriminately while inside the town, killing a female civilian and pillaging local businesses and stealing three vehicles belonging to aid workers.
"Calm has returned, the army is securing the town," he continued.
"As for the EUFOR elements, they are taking care of the aid workers and refugees. The forces of defence and security were able to recover two vehicles belonging to the aid workers and are pursuing the rebels," he added.
But another rebel spokesman, Abdelwawid Abud Makaye, president of the Union of Democratic Forces for Fundamental Development (UFDD-F), said their forces "controlled the whole sector".
"We are now discussing strategy," he added. "When we took Goz Beida, we captured 20 army vehicles. We didn't take any injuries. However the army suffered several deaths," he said.
Chad's former colonial ruler, France, said in a statement Saturday: "Any armed action targeting Chad and its institutions can only be condemned.
"We call on all concerned parties to find a political solution," said the a French foreign ministry statement.
Rebels in Chad Friday threatened to target any French aircraft flying reconnaissance missions over their positions.
"We have 500 pick-up trucks with well-armed men. Our aim is to take Ndjamena by the weekend which we will, God willing," Aboud Makaye added.
Another rebel source said a convoy of vehicles was heading towards the town of Mangalme, some 75 kilometres west of Goz Beida and 5OO kilometres east of Chad's capital.
Goz Beida is a strategic town in the hilly south east. Nearly 80,000 displaced Chadians and some 36,000 refugees from neighbouring Sudan's war-battered Darfur region live nearby in camps.
Relations between Chad and Sudan have been difficult for more than five years with the two countries regularly accusing each other of supporting rebels factions fighting against their respective regimes.
Diplomatic relations broke off in mid-May after an attack near the Sudan capital Khartoum by a Darfur rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement. Ndjamena denied any involvement.
France, which has had a military presence in Chad since 1986, supplied most of the troops for the European Union EUFOR peacekeeping mission in the east of the country, on the border with Sudan and the war-torn Darfur region.
A member of the French special forces serving with the EUFOR force was killed in March after his vehicle strayed into Sudan and he and his colleagues got into a fire fight with Sudanese troops.
Rebels attacked Ndjamena in February, reaching the presidential palace in an attempt to drive out President Idriss Deby Itno. A similar unsuccessful coup attempt was made in 2006.
Date created : 2008-06-14