N’DJAMENA, Chad (Agence France-Presse) — Troops clashed with rebel forces near the capital yesterday, with both sides claiming victory in a battle that could eventually decide control of the city.
Chad’s military said the army had engaged a large group of rebels at Massaguet, about 30 miles northeast of the capital, N’Djamena, and “destroyed this column after 40 minutes of fighting.”
Rebel leader Timan Erdimi insisted his side had won the day and vowed that the next clash would be in N’Djamena itself. “We’re doing the chasing,” he said by satellite phone.
Both sides later reported further ground skirmishes, but gave no details of casualties.
As the situation worsened, the United Nations evacuated all “nonessential” staff from the Chadian capital to Cameroon, and France flew a combat unit of 126 extra troops into Chad to join the 1,100 permanently posted there.
Air France said all access to N’Djamena airport had been blocked, preventing scheduled flights from landing.
The capital itself was practically deserted yesterday afternoon, with a large military presence on the streets and helicopters flying overhead. The area around the president’s office was sealed off and protected by tanks.
Chad accuses Sudan of having united and armed the rebels. Mr. Erdimi allied himself with fellow rebel leaders Mahamat Nouri and Adbelwahid Aboud Makaye in mid-December after a peace pact with President Idriss Deby fell apart.
In a letter released yesterday in New York, Chad told the United Nations Security Council it would use its right of self-defense to repel “the aggression orchestrated” by Sudan.
If necessary, they would pursue the rebels across the border, it added.
On Monday, a rebel convoy of 300 pickups, each capable of carrying between 10 and 15 men, approached N’Djamena after leaving rear bases across the border in Sudan’s western Darfur region, in the biggest such push since April 2006.
Their offensive began the week a European Union peacekeeping force was due to start deploying advance troops in Chad and neighboring Central African Republic to protect civilians and refugees from the Darfur conflict.
The European mission announced yesterday a temporary delay in troop flights into N’Djamena, one with a dozen Austrian soldiers and two with about 50 Irish soldiers and equipment.
At full strength, the force will consist of 3,700 men. They will protect about half a million civilians and humanitarian and relief workers in Chad and Central African Republic, but stay out of local conflicts unless attacked.
About 234,000 Darfur refugees, along with 179,000 displaced eastern Chadians and 43,000 Central Africans uprooted by strife and rebellion in the north of their country, are precariously housed in camps in the region.