Chadian rebels fighting their way towards the capital Ndjamena took control Saturday of a town near the Sudanese border as former colonial ruler France condemned the rebel advance.
Rebels in Chad on Saturday attacked the eastern town of Goz-Beida, and Irish European Union troops took up defensive positions between the fighting and a refugee camp, aid workers and an officer said.
The rattle of machinegun fire and the thump of heavier weapons could be heard and thick black smoke rose from the town, a Reuters reporter 12 km (7 miles) outside Goz-Beida said.
"There is heavy fighting in the town," a foreign aid worker told Reuters. Goz-Beida is located about 70 km (40 miles) by road from Chad's eastern border with Sudan's Darfur region.
A Chadian rebel alliance fighting to topple President Idriss Deby has said several of its columns are advancing westwards towards the capital N'Djamena in a fresh offensive. They last attacked the Chadian capital in the west in February.
Goz-Beida is surrounded by United Nations-run camps housing tens of thousands of Sudanese and Chadian refugees. They are being protected by an Irish infantry battalion serving with an EU military force that deployed in eastern Chad this year.
"We have troops between Djabal refugee camp and the fighting in town and the (humanitarian) NGOs are sitting tight. It's best they stay put as there is still fighting and it's a bit ropey in town," Commandant Stephen Morgan of the Irish 97th Infantry Battalion told Reuters.
"It would not be good to send soft-skinned vehicles in at this time," he added. But there were no reports so far of any direct clashes between the rebels and the Irish EU troops.
Aid workers reported fighting in the street outside the Oxfam Great Britain compound, near the market in Goz-Beida.
The Reuters reporter had earlier passed a rebel column of between 80 and 100 pick-up trucks racing towards Goz-Beida.
Some of the vehicles had machine-guns mounted on the back, others carried rebel fighters, their heads and faces swathed in turbans against the dust, holding automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They waved and cheered.
Chad's government has rejected the rebel announcements of a new major offensive as "rebel propaganda" but has said "mercenaries in the pay of Sudan" -- the term it usually uses to describe the insurgents -- crossed into Chad on Wednesday.
"We'll see you in N'Djamena in three days," one of the rebel fighters shouted to the Reuters reporter as the passing insurgent column headed to Goz-Beida.
One rebel spokesman had 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 future.
France has military aircraft and troops stationed in Chad under a defence cooperation treaty, in which Paris provides intelligence, logistical and medical help to Chad's government.
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.
Date created : 2008-06-14