- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

LA ROCHELLE, France — France is ready to begin a military operation in Chad against rebels if necessary, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday.

But the government stressed that France had no immediate plans to step up its military involvement, saying the fighting appeared to be abating.

France has about 1,900 troops already based in Chad, a former French colony in Central Africa, where rebels and government troops have been clashing in and near the capital for three days.

“If France must do its duty, it will do so,” Mr. Sarkozy said in response to a question on a possible French military operation in Chad. “Let no one doubt it.”

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council paved the way for countries allied with Chad to help repel a rebel offensive.

Mr. Sarkozy said French troops have not been involved in the fighting except last Friday night, when they opened fire to protect French civilians being evacuated. He said that was a case of self-defense.

Mr. Sarkozy dismissed as “absolutely not exact” rebel claims that French forces had killed civilians.

“If Chad were a victim of an aggression, France would have — and I stress the conditional tense — the means to resist this action.”

Chad’s capital was mostly quiet yesterday as rebels seeking to oust the president kept to the fringes of the city and signaled they were ready for a cease-fire.

Chad’s foreign minister, Ahmad Allam-mi, said the rebels had been chased to 30 miles outside N’Djamena.

“N’Djamena is calm,” Mr. Allam-mi told reporters in Paris after talks with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. “I think they are awaiting some reinforcements, but all threat to the security of the city of N’Djamena can now be put aside.”

Chad’s government has accused neighboring Sudan of backing the rebels to prevent the deployment of a European peacekeeping force in a region along their border, where more than 400,000 refugees are living.

A Chadian official declared the fighting a “direct war” with the Sudanese president.

The death toll from four days of violence was not known, but the Red Cross said hundreds of civilians died, more than 1,000 were wounded and as many as 30,000 had fled N’Djamena. Bodies lay on the streets, which were also littered with the hulks of burned-out tanks and other abandoned vehicles.

The fighting is the latest chapter in the oil-rich African country’s long-standing conflict. It has threatened to further destabilize an already violent swath of Africa that borders Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region.

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