AFP - Chad President Idriss Deby Itno's forces have won a decisive victory over Sudan-based rebels who have retreated to the border, a French military source said Sunday.
"I think we can say that we are in the final phase," said the source, who was contacted from Libreville. "It is a clear victory for Deby. The rebels are beating a retreat.
"There has been a reconcentration of (rebel) columns in the southeast, along the border," he added, suggesting the rebels could be preparing to leave Chad and return to Sudan.
The French military source's comments backed up earlier claims from Chadian ministers that government forces had routed the rebels, who entered eastern Chad from Sudan on Monday in hundreds of trucks.
Deby, who seized power himself in 1990 after a similar rebellion launched from Sudan, threatened Saturday to break off relations with Khartoum.
"To this end, Sudanese cultural centres must be closed and schools financed by Sudan must be taken over by the Chadian government. Teachers who are really intelligence agents ought to return home," he said.
Deby accuses Sudan of backing the rebels who want to seize Ndjamena and oust him from power. Khartoum denies this charge.
Acting Chadian Defence Minister Adoum Younousmi told AFP the rebels were finished, saying: "They will take two or three years to rebuild."
The Chadian government says 225 rebels and 22 soldiers were killed in two days of clashes on Thursday and Friday south of the main eastern city of Abeche.
The rebel Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) dismiss the government casualty claims and insist their offensive is far from over.
"We are regrouping, we are taking care of the wounded, we are getting ready. The situation is calm this morning, but you will see, it will pick up again," said a rebel source, reached from Libreville.
"Ndjamena can say what they like but it isn't over. The figures given by the authorities are false."
The source later claimed the French military assessment was only "based on what they see with their planes," adding: "They have doubtless seen vehicles on certain main roads, but our people know how to hide so they are not seen."
South of Abeche, in the town of Am-Dam, government forces showed off their booty and prisoners to journalists on Saturday, who also saw dozens of bodies and burned-out vehicles.
The pictures were broadcast on Chadian television Sunday.
Taken to an army post some five kilometres from Am-Dam, an AFP photographer counted some 50 bodies.
The fighting has heightened concerns among UN agencies and aid groups caring for about 450,000 refugees from Sudan and the Central African Republic.
The rebel offensive came shortly after Ndjamena and Khartoum signed the latest in a series of peace accords, none of which has had any lasting effect.
As recently as February 2008, rebels battled their way to the gates of the presidential palace before being beaten back, thanks largely to French support.
One consequence of the latest drive is that Chad will back the International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir for alleged war crimes in Darfur, Deby has said.
Sudan analyst Gerard Prunier says Khartoum wants the UFR to take power to "sandwich" rebels from Darfur's Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).
But Rodolphe Adada, who heads the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), fears that if Chad pursues the insurgents back into Sudan, "this might reignite the violence in western Darfur."
After a UN Security Council meeting in New York unanimously condemned the rebel offensive, Sudan on Sunday said it would retaliate in the event of such a pursuit.
Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein warned that the army was ready "to repulse any aggression on Sudanese territories," Sudan's Suna news agency reported.