- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

JOHANNESBURG — The war in Sudan’s anarchic region of Darfur spread across a swath of Africa and engulfed neighboring Chad yesterday when rebels attacked its capital, N’Djamena.

Gunfire echoed across the city and mortar rounds exploded in the streets as heavily armed insurgents launched their dawn raid.

President Idriss Deby of Chad, holed up in his palace, ordered his tanks and helicopter gunships into action.

By early afternoon, when the fighting died down, he claimed in a broadcast that he was in “full control” of his capital. Mr. Deby said the “rebel column” had been driven out and stability would soon return.

In fact, his position could scarcely be more precarious. Only last month, he survived an attempted coup.

Now the rebels, who reached the center of N’Djamena before being beaten back, have achieved a lightning advance across the vast desert country.

Their offensive began from bases inside Sudan’s war-torn region of Darfur, which shares a frontier with Chad. Western diplomats and Mr. Deby’s regime accuse Sudan of arming these rebels and launching them against Chad.

The latest developments mark a sinister escalation of the conflict in Darfur, which has already claimed the lives of 300,000 people and turned 2 million into refugees.

In a matter of weeks, the rebels have managed to leave Darfur and advance 600 miles across an arid landscape to reach N’Djamena and threaten Mr. Deby.

As recently as Monday, the rebels, styling themselves the United Forces for Change, were reported to be 250 miles east of the capital.

By Wednesday, they had managed another leap forward and were only 60 miles away. Yesterday, they reached the heart of the city before Mr. Deby drove them back.

Western diplomats think Sudan is trying to oust Mr. Deby in retaliation for his role in the Darfur war. Khartoum has accused him of arming the rebels who began the fighting in Darfur three years ago.

Mr. Deby comes from the black African Zaghawa tribe, also present in Darfur. The Zaghawas were among the tribes who rose up against Khartoum’s control of Darfur.

Sudan thinks Mr. Deby sent arms to the main rebel group in Darfur, styling itself the Sudan Liberation Army.

Western diplomats have no doubt Sudan responded by arming Arab insurgents inside Chad and dispatching them to overthrow Mr. Deby.

He is deeply unpopular in much of Chad, where Zaghawas make up only 7 percent of the population. The Arab tribes are his traditional opponents, and they look to Khartoum’s Arab-dominated regime for support.

This bitter rivalry between two neighbors stems from Darfur’s crisis.

Mr. Deby, who seized power in 1990, is a close ally of France, Chad’s former colonial power. Some 1,200 French troops are deployed in his country, and Paris reinforced them with another 150 soldiers yesterday.

According to the French Foreign Ministry, a Mirage fighter also fired “warning shots” at the rebels.

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