GOZ-BEIDA, Chad, June 15 (Reuters) - Chadian rebels mounting
what they say is a new offensive against President Idriss Deby
advanced deeper into the country from the east on Sunday,
briefly occupying the town of Am-Dam, rebel spokesmen said.
Another rebel column attacked the eastern town of Goz-Beida
on Saturday, engaging government troops in heavy fighting before
pulling back towards the Sudanese border 70 km (40 miles) away.
Oil-producing Chad and Sudan accuse each other of backing
insurgents who have attacked both capitals this year.
"We occupied the town of Am-Dam this morning ... We did not
meet much resistance," Ali Gadaye, spokesman for the rebel
National Alliance, told Reuters by satellite phone.
"We have just left Am-Dam town. We are carrying on."
Am-Dam is a small town about 120 km (75 miles) northwest of
Goz-Beida. It is 700 km (440 miles) by road from the western
capital N'Djamena, which rebels last attacked in February.
Abderaman Koulamallah, whose Union for Democratic Change
(UDC) is part of the National Alliance, told Reuters by phone
from France that one rebel column was just west of Am-Dam.
The separate column that attacked Goz-Beida pulled out of
the town after fighting with government forces on Saturday but
was still in the area, he said. A Reuters reporter saw that
column numbered up to 100 vehicles before that attack.
There was no independent confirmation of the rebels'
location. Koulamallah said government forces had now taken up
positions on the main road to N'Djamena. "We could run up
against them in the coming hours or days," he said.
But David Buchbinder, a researcher for U.S.-based Human
Rights Watch, told Reuters in Goz-Beida that a repeat of the
rebels' February march on N'Djamena was improbable.
"It's already into the start of the rainy season, so they're
taking a big risk the longer they stay in the country because
the rain blocks their means of retreat to Sudan," he said.
HIT AND RUN ATTACKS
"It seems like it will be hit and run attacks in the east
for the next week or so to demonstrate their relevance. The
general consensus is that an attack on N'Djamena is unlikely due
to the rainy season ... From Am-Dam they can go up to Abeche,
west to N'Djamena or back down to Goz-Beida," he said.
Government reinforcements started leaving N'Djamena for the
east on Saturday, Information Minister Mahamat Hissene said.
Army sources said the reinforcements included heavy weaponry.
Chad army troops in pickups mounted with heavy guns or laden
with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) raced round Goz-Beida in
pickup trucks on Sunday, kicking up plumes of dust, and appeared
to reinforce defensive positions on the road northeast to Sudan.
Irish EU troops protecting refugee camps under the European
Union's EUFOR mission in eastern Chad patrolled the periphery of
Goz-Beida as well as surrounding refugee camps including Djabal,
where they came under RPG fire during Saturday's fighting.
They returned "warning fire" at the unidentified attackers.
Metre-wide craters from the RPG blasts were visible outside
the sprawling camp on Sunday as Irish troops briefly deployed to
reassure its 15,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur war.
Children, women in colourful robes carrying plastic
jerrycans of water on their heads and men leading donkeys laden
with firewood waved cheerfully at EUFOR troops, whose presence
has made at least some improvement to the dire insecurity.
Some of the town's mud-built walls were marked by RPG
explosions. Medical workers said at least 24 people were wounded
in the attack and the government said one woman was killed.
A thin trail of smoke rose from the smouldering remains of a
compound belonging to German aid agency GTZ, whose fuel store
caught fire in the fighting. Other aid compounds were looted.