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Hundreds of rebels clash with government forces in Chads capital
Chad's President Idriss Deby arrives for an EU Africa Summit in Lisbon, Sunday Dec. 9, 2007. Heavy gunfire was heard Saturday Feb. 2, 2008 near the presidential palace in Chad, a hotel operator reached by telephone said, and rebel forces were believed to have reached the capital after a lightning advance across the desert in pickup convoys. A hotel operator at the Hotel le Meridien, a couple of kilometers (about a mile) from the headquarters of President Idriss Deby said he could hear the gunfire. The line went dead before a reporter could get more details. - photo by Associated Press
    NAIROBI, Kenya — Hundreds of rebels charged into Chad’s capital aboard pickup trucks Saturday, clashing with government troops around the presidential palace in the most forceful attempt yet to oust President Idriss Deby. The rebels claimed to gain strength from defecting soldiers in the oil-rich Central African nation.
    The violence endangered a $300 million global aid operation supporting millions of people in the former French colony and also delayed the deployment of the European Union’s peacekeeping mission to both Chad and neighboring Central African Republic.
    The rebels arrived after a three-day push across the desert from the eastern border with Sudan in about 250 pickups with mounted submachine guns.
    Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said the rebels gathered outside N’Djamena overnight before 1,000 to 1,500 fighters entered early Saturday and spread through the city.
    Government forces were pushing rebels away from N’Djamena, he said late Saturday. ‘‘It appears clear that President Deby succeeded in containing them at his palace and is even in the process of pushing them back,’’ Burkhard said.
    Chad’s ambassador in Ethiopia, Cherif Mahamat Zene, told The Associated Press ‘‘the situation is under control.
    ‘‘The head of state is fine in his palace. It’s true that there are some rebels who have entered the city, but to say the city has fallen is false.’’ Zene said his information came from a telephone call with the defense minister in N’Djamena.
    A spokesman for the biggest rebel group told the AP that its forces had surrounded the presidential palace and claimed that government soldiers were defecting.
    ‘‘Many in the military have rallied with the rebels,’’ said Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development. He was reached on a Sudanese mobile telephone number and said he was on Chad’s border with Sudan.
    Chad, a French colony until 1960, has been convulsed by civil wars and invasions since independence, and the recent discovery of oil has only increased the intensity of the struggle for power in the largely desert country about three times the size of California.
    In April 2006, one Chadian rebel group launched a failed assault on N’Djamena.
    The rebel force is believed to be a coalition of three groups, including the biggest led by former diplomat Mahamat Nouri, who defected 16 months ago, and a nephew of Deby’s, Timan Erdimi. They long have been fighting to overthrow Deby, whom they accuse of corruption. Deby, himself a soldier, has suffered many defections in the past and morale is low in the army.
    The rebels also have said they were unhappy with the president not providing enough support to rebels in Sudan’s Darfur region, some of whom are from Deby’s own tribe, the Zaghawa, who are found both Chad and Sudan.
    The African Union, holding a summit in Ethiopia, said it would not recognize the rebels should they seize power. Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete, new head of the 52-nation bloc, said leaders had selected Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso to try to broker peace there.
    France said it ‘‘firmly condemns the attempt to take power by force,’’ according to a statement from the foreign affairs ministry. It called for peace and reconciliation and said France supports the African mediation effort.
    A leader of Chad’s main opposition alliance, which is unarmed and not associated with the rebels, said shooting broke out after rebels entered the city around 8 a.m. but appeared to die down. Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh said about 12:45 p.m. there were no soldiers in his neighborhood and state radio had gone off the air.
    A bomb hit the residence of the Saudi ambassador to Chad, killing the wife and daughter of an embassy staffer taking shelter from the fighting, according to a Saudi foreign ministry statement.
    The U.S. Embassy urged Americans seeking evacuation to get to the embassy. State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth said the embassy had authorized the departure of nonessential personnel and family members.
    The United Nations decided to temporarily evacuate all its staff, said William Spindler, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, but ‘‘since there is fighting going on, it might be difficult to carry it out.’’ Spindler said 51 U.N. staff were evacuated to Cameroon overnight.
    French officials said those wishing to leave Chad were being transferred to Libreville, Gabon, starting Saturday night on a French military Transall. Some 900 foreigners were gathered at safety points guarded by French soldiers.
    Gareth Owen, director of emergencies for Save the Children organization, said ‘‘the whole humanitarian network in Chad is dependent on planes flying in and out of the capital.
    ‘‘As the violence disrupts N’Djamena, children and families across the whole country will suffer’’ including refugees from Sudan’s Darfur conflict and Chadians forced from their homes in the spillover, Owen said.
    The fighting delayed the EU peacekeeping mission deploying troops to both Chad and neighboring Central African Republic, which was to be up and running early next month, said Commandant Dan Harvey, speaking at the EU military headquarters in Paris on Friday. The deployment of the advance force could be postponed for days, he said.
    France’s military has about 1,400 personnel in Chad, including 1,200 in the capital. Paris sent more troops late Thursday to boost a longtime military presence in Chad.
    There were reports of French troops in the streets, but not intervening. Al-Jazeera television network showed French snipers on guard on the roof of the Hotel le Meridien.
    Any possible French military intervention would jeopardize the EU peacekeeping mission, said Roland Marchal, a Chad expert and researcher at the French Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales.
    ‘‘If they were to intervene, the neutrality of the European intervention in Chad is over and it would blow France’s policy on European defense,’’ Marchal said.
    It appeared that Chad’s government might be getting less help from France than during previous rebel attacks on the capital, said Henri Boshoff, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.
    Previously, ‘‘the French gave them intelligence using aerial reconnaissance and that allowed the Chad government to act,’’ Boshoff told the AP. ‘‘But it looks like this time it’s too late, the rebels got too close.’’
    The difference could be that former President Jacques Chirac, who led France during the previous coup attempts, had tried to project the image of France as a friendly protector on the African continent. The new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for a ‘‘healthier relationship,’’ saying it would not be business as usual with France’s old corrupt allies on the continent.
    The most recent rebellions in Chad began in 2005 in the east, erupting at the same time as the conflict in neighboring Sudan’s western region of Darfur. The governments of Chad and Sudan repeatedly exchange accusations that one is backing the other’s rebel groups.
    Deby came to power at the head of a rebellion in 1990; he has won elections since, but none deemed free or fair. He brought a semblance of peace after three decades of civil war and an invasion by Libya, but became increasingly isolated.
    Associated Press writers Angela Doland in Paris, Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva and Michelle Faul in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.

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