Thousands flee Chad as rebels vow fresh offensive

NDJAMENA (AFP) — Thousands fled the Chadian capital Ndjamena on Monday, the UN refugee agency said, as rebels threatened a fresh offensive after two days of heavy fighting saw them pull out of the city.

Dead bodies littered the streets of Ndjamena, where buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes after a weekend of fighting, as Sudan denied claims by President Idriss Deby that it was backing the rebellion.

General Mahamat Ali Abdallah, operational commander of government forces, told AFP the rebels had been "completely routed ... Time is going to show that they have been defeated."

But rebel spokesman Abderaman Koulamallah, contacted Monday by satellite telephone, said the insurgency -- the most serious that Deby has faced since coming to power in 1990 in this central African state -- 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, while the national radio station was ransacked.

In Khartoum, the Sudanese government Monday denied claims by Deby's regime that it was supporting the rebels, who had crossed the width of Chad from rear bases in Sudan's remote and strife-torn Darfur region.

"What's happening in Chad is an internal matter and Sudan has nothing to do with it," Sudan armed forces spokesman Othman Mohammed al-Agbash said, adding that claims of Sudanese warplanes supporting the rebels were "groundless".

Chadian Foreign Minister Amad Allam-Mi told France's RFI radio on Sunday that Sudan wanted to install a Khartoum-friendly administration in Ndjamena and "to close the window on the crisis in Darfur".

"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."

In New York, the UN Security Council was to resume emergency talks Monday on a declaration to condemn the rebel assault, after consultations Sunday failed to produce an agreement on a draft put forward by France.

And in Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the European Union would go ahead with its peacekeeping mission to Chad, though the troops remain grounded at present by the ongoing unrest.

"Our wish is to maintain the operation," Solana said.

The EU force has been tasked with protecting refugees from the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur, as well as Chadians and people of the neighbouring Central African Republic displaced by internal conflict.