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Associated Press
Chad Rebels Fight Troops in Capital
By TOM MALITI 02.02.08, 8:54 PM ET

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 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.

Libya's official news agency, JANA, reported that Chadian rebel leader Mahamat Nouri agreed to a cease-fire Saturday night after speaking to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was appointed by the African Union to mediate in the crisis.

Rebel spokesman Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye said he had not heard of any cease-fire and did not believe Nouri would agree to an unconditional end to hostilities. "The fighters would rebel," Boulmaye told The Associated in an early morning telephone call Sunday. Boulmaye said he was speaking from the border with Sudan and had not spoken to Nouri since Saturday afternoon.

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.

The rebels gathered outside N'Djamena overnight before 1,000 to 1,500 fighters entered early Saturday and spread through the city, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman.

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.

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.

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.

Boulmaye, the rebel spokesman, told AP earlier that rebel had surrounded the presidential palace and claimed that government soldiers were defecting.

"Many in the military have rallied with the rebels," said Boulmaye, whose Union of Forces for Democracy and Development is the biggest rebel group.

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 Nouri, a former diplomat 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 in 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 Gadhafi and Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso to try to broker peace.

France said it "firmly condemns the attempt to take power by force."

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.

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. Some 900 foreigners 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 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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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