By TOM MALITI, Associated Press Writer Wed Feb 6, 1:52 PM ET
For the first time since the assault began, more people were crossing bridges toward N'Djamena than away apparently heeding a government call to return. Government forces pushed rebels out of the capital after weekend battles that left hundreds dead and sent thousands fleeing.
President Idriss Deby wore a military uniform as he received reporters in the presidential palace to make his first public comments since the coup attempt.
He denied reports that he had been injured as N'Djamena was besieged, spreading his arms wide and saying, "Look at me, I'm fine."
"We are in total control, not only of the capital, but of all the country," Deby said after meeting with the French defense minister, who came to Chad in a show of support for the government.
Oil-rich Chad has accused Sudan of backing the rebels in an attempt to prevent deployment of a European force to protect refugees from the war-ravaged Darfur region that borders Chad. Sudan has long resisted such a force, but has denied involvement in Chad's coup attempt.
Deby said the Chadian army was chasing the rebels, who were fleeing east. "We are going to catch them before they enter Sudan," he said, speaking for about 30 minutes while seated in a chair in front of the flags of Chad and the African Union.
But he suggested his government had been weakened.
"I am working with less than a quarter of the members of my government," he said. "I do not know where the rest have gone."
"There are traitors. When the time comes we shall work on that issue," he added.
French Defense Minister Herve Morin suggested the rebels were not completely routed, telling France-Inter radio that his intelligence showed a column of insurgent reinforcements was moving in.
French officials had said earlier that 100-200 rebel vehicles appeared to have regrouped east of the capital.
The U.N. Security Council has condemned the attack and authorized France, the former colonial power, and other nations to help Chad's government.
France has given Deby strong support in the past and has about 1,900 soldiers, backed by fighter jets, in Chad. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said French troops were ready to attack the rebels if necessary, though his government has stressed no such plans were imminent.
Rebels attacked the capital Friday in pickup trucks after advancing in a matter of days from their eastern bases near the border with Sudan.
The fighting left bodies in downtown streets. The rebels withdrew late Sunday, and by Wednesday morning the city was quiet, the streets almost empty.
Chadian health officials pleaded for doctors and nurses to return to N'Djamena to help the wounded.
Chadian Red Cross officials have said hundreds of civilians were killed in the fighting, but no official death toll has been given.
The U.N. refugee agency said some 20,000 people had fled across the Chari river into Cameroon since Monday. About 1,000 have taken refuge in Nigeria, that country's Red Cross said.
But on Wednesday, more people were returning to N'Djamena than leaving across two bridges spanning the Chari.
"We don't have any money and there's no food. We have been sleeping on the ground," said a man who gave only his first name, Nicholas, as he hurried on.
An Associated Press reporter saw small groups of men heading toward N'Djamena, about 40 in an hour. Many said they left wives and children in Cameroon while they returned to protect houses from looters and assess the security situation in the capital.
Eric Mbaye, a middle-aged man from N'Djamena, said churches were overflowing with refugees on the Cameroon side of the river, and he decided it would be better to try to return home.
Most shops and buildings in downtown N'Djamena have been looted. Outside the city center, the state broadcasting station and the parliament building were stripped.
No civilian planes including aid flights have been allowed into Chad since the fighting started, and relief group Save the Children said they were running out of food and supplies for camps serving more than 500,000 people including displaced Chadians and Sudanese refugees.
The U.N. World Food Program has said its food deliveries to more than 420,000 people are threatened by the violence.
In light of the French help, Deby said he would consider pardoning a group of French charity workers sentenced to eight years in prison on kidnapping charges for trying to fly children they claimed where Darfur orphans out of Chad.
"If France were to make the demand, it is not impossible that I would look into the question, because it falls within my role as president," Deby said.
The rebels accuse Deby of corruption and embezzling millions in oil revenue. While many Chadians may share that assessment, the uprising appears to be a power struggle within the elite that has long controlled Chad; rebellion leaders include Mahamat Nouri, a former defense minister, and Timan Erdimi, a nephew of Deby who was his chief of staff.
Associated Press writers Danzoumbe Padire, Angela Charlton in Paris, Frank Jordans in Geneva and Heidi Vogt in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.
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