Rebel forces bid to oust 'corrupt' Chadian leader

GOVERNMENT forces in Chad yesterday fought off the most daring strike yet by rebels against the capital, N'Djamena, as international concern grew over the escalating conflict.

Some residents of the capital fled west by canoe over the Chari river to Cameroon as rebels, who had slipped into the city during the night, battled with government troops in a north-eastern neighbourhood. The thump of artillery and rattle of small-arms fire echoed across the city for several hours.

Idriss Deby, the president of Chad, accuses neighbouring Sudan of supporting and arming the attackers, who are fighting to end his near 16-year rule over the landlocked nation and to disrupt presidential polls scheduled for 3 May, in which he is standing for re- election. Sudan has consistently denied backing the rebels.

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France, the former colonial power which has 1,200 soldiers in the central African oil producer, made clear it opposed any attempt to overthrow Mr Deby, while the African Union strongly condemned the rebel attacks. "France has lent its political support to President Deby and his government ... the rebels have to be given a warning," said a source close to Jacques Chirac, adding that the French president had called Mr Deby several times in recent days.

Mr Deby had earlier told French radio he was in the presidential palace and that the situation in the city was under control. Soldiers patrolling the dusty streets wore red armbands to distinguish themselves from infiltrators or deserters, diplomats said.

Government officials paraded several dozen rebel prisoners they said were captured with vehicles and weapons in N'Djamena. The prisoners were young and dressed in camouflage uniforms.

A burnt-out pick-up truck containing charred bodies sat near the parliament building in north-east N'Djamena.

"We've wiped out these attackers," said General Mahamat Ali Abdallah Nassour, Chad's territorial administration minister.

Mr Deby's opponents denounce what they see as his autocratic and clan-based rule and accuse him of corruption. His grip on power has been weakened recently by a wave of army desertions.

Aid groups and some embassies plan to evacuate their staff's family members. The UN said it was withdrawing all non-essential staff from its agencies in N'Djamena.

France, which has reinforced its military contingent and has six combat aircraft on standby, said it was ready to evacuate some 1,500 French nationals if necessary.

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French officials said the rebels who broke into the capital yesterday appeared to be isolated units and that the main advancing insurgent column was halted by government forces late on Wednesday at Linia, 18 miles outside N'Djamena.

A French warplane fired a warning shot over the rebel column on Wednesday, according to a spokesman for France's defence ministry.

And despite a boycott by opposition parties Mr Deby, who was elected president in 1996 and again in 2001, vowed that next month's poll would go ahead.

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