February 4, 2008 (NDJAMENA) — Rebels fighters trying to oust President Idriss Deby Itno threatened Monday a fresh offensive on Chad’s capital Ndjamena and told civilians to quit the city immediately.
Sporadic automatic gunfire was heard in the morning, possibly coming from isolated combatants or from mopping-up operations by government forces in the wake of rebel offensives on Saturday and Sunday.
As dead bodies littered the streets, and thousands reportedly fled into neighbouring Cameroon, General Mahamat Ali Abdallah, operational commander of government forces, said the rebels had been “completely routed”.
“Their goal had only been to destroy the city,” said the general, who is also Chad’s mining minister. “They retreated because they had no other choice. Time is going to show that they have been defeated.”
But rebel spokesman Abderaman Koulamallah, contacted Monday by satellite telephone, asserted that the insurgency — the most serious that Deby has faced since coming to power in 1990 — was far from over.
“We have pulled out of the city and we are waiting for the civilian population to be evacuated,” Koulamallah told AFP, adding that the rebels were surrounding the capital that is home to an estimated 700,000 people.
“We opted to leave the city, but we certainly will go back on the offensive,” he said. “We’re asking the civilian population of Ndjamena to leave immediately because their safety cannot be assured.”
In Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it had been told by local officials in the Chadian border town of Kousseri that people were fleeing “by the thousands” into neighbouring Cameroon.
“We’re expecting a lot more people coming” to the Cameroon side of the Chari River that marks the border, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said, adding that the virtual siege conditions around Ndjamena also threatened supplies to refugees from neighbouring Darfur in camps in eastern Chad.
“We’re extremely concerned” about some 240,000 Sudanese refugees in these camps if the siege continues, Redmond said.
In Paris, 363 French and other foreign nationals evacuated from Chad touched down early Monday on board a plane chartered by the French foreign ministry, officials said. A first group of 202 foreigners, of 27 different nationalities, was evacuated by French military transport plane on Sunday.
No death toll has been given, but many bodies were seen in the streets, some covered in flies or plastic shrouds. The aid group Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said “hundreds” of civilians had been wounded.
In fighting Sunday, the main Ndjamena market was looted and torched after it was hit by a missile, witnesses told AFP, while the national radio station was ransacked.
In New York, the UN Security Council was to resume emergency talks Monday on a declaration to condemn the rebel assault in Chad, after consultations Sunday failed to produce an agreement on a draft put forward by France.
Chad’s foreign minister asserted Sunday that the rebellion against Deby, who spent the weekend holed up in his presidential palace as fighting raged in the surrounding streets, had been quashed.
Allam-Mi said Sudan wanted to install a Khartoum-friendly administration in Ndjamena and “to close the window on the crisis in Darfur” which lies to the east of Chad.
“Sudan has sent these attackers more than 700 kilometres (430 miles) to destroy out capital,” he said. “If it is necessary for the security of Chad and for the defense of its integrity, we will go to Sudan.”