Rebels close in on N'Djamena

Government forces and rebels are exchanging fire about 20 kilometers north of the capital. Military sources say that fighting is taking place outside the presidential palace in N'Djamena. (Story by K. Williams)


Fighting broke out between Chadian rebels and government forces just north of the capital Saturday, both sides said, as France prepared to evacuate its nationals in the face of the rebel advance.

"Fighting between government forces and rebels has started at about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Ndjamena," a military source told AFP, saying there was more or less an equal number of forces on both sides.

"The fighting is taking place at the northern entrance to the city," confirmed rebel spokesman Abakar Tollimi by satellite telephone.

He said the government troops were "scattering", adding of President Idriss Deby: "He will fall today, it's sure."

Heavy weapons fire could be heard from Ndjamena Saturday, and some witnesses there told AFP they had seen rebels in the capital, including near the national assembly, although this could not immediately be confirmed.

The French embassy overnight began grouping its nationals here to prepare for possible evacuation. Some 1,500 French citizens live in Chad, 85 percent of them in Ndjamena.

Tollimi said he was in eastern Chad with a "large convoy" of rebels.

A convoy of 300 pick-ups, each capable of carrying between 10 and 15 men, has been advancing on Ndjamena since Monday, when they left rear bases across the border in western Sudan's Darfur.

The offensive -- the biggest since April 2006 -- comes after rebel leaders Timan Erdimi, Mahamat Nouri and Adbelwahid Aboud Makaye joined forces in mid-December after a previous peace pact with Deby fell apart.

They were stopped Friday, when Chad's general staff said the army had engaged a large group of rebels at Massaguet, about 50 kilometres northeast of the capital, and "entirely destroyed this column after 40 minutes of fighting".

"The Massaguet battle was very violent. The army did not succeed in pushing forward," a Chadian military source, loyal to Deby, told AFP.

Chadian Foreign Minister Amad Allam-Mi told AFP late Friday the rebel attack against Ndjamena had been repelled after "serious clashes".

Asked by telephone whether the rebels could take the capital, he said: "Everything is possible. We cannot rule out anything; the rebels are well armed and equipped." He blamed Sudan for supporting the rebels.

Erdimi insisted his side had won the day, telling AFP by satellite phone: "We completely smashed them, but Deby was able to escape. Now we are between Massaguet and Ndjamena. We are coming to Ndjamena."

An Ndjamena military source said the president had been at the front but had returned to the capital.

As the fighting continued, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Geneva said it had evacuated around 160 "non-essential" staff from Ndjamena to Cameroon.

France meanwhile flew a combat unit of 126 extra troops into Chad to join the 1,100 permanently posted there.

A UN statement said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, currently visiting Kenya, was "deeply concerned at the resumption of fighting in Chad" and reiterated the "United Nations' condemnation of the use of military means to seize power".

EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel on Friday also condemned "any attempt at an armed takeover".

The rebel offensive began the week an EU peacekeeping force was due to start deploying advance troops in Chad and neighbouring Central African Republic to protect civilians and refugees from the Darfur conflict.

The European mission, EUFOR, announced Friday a temporary delay in troop flights to Ndjamena, one with a dozen Austrian soldiers and two with around 50 Irish soldiers and equipment.

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