ABECHE, Chad | When the gunfire started around 9 on Friday evening, some people in this hot, remote outpost town near Chad´s border with Sudan assumed it was celebratory shooting from a wedding taking place downtown. But long bursts of machine-gun fire and at least one exploding rocket quickly dispelled that notion.
For two hours gunfire laced downtown Abeche, killing at least one person and perhaps many more, though the government denies anyone was hurt.
The incident - described as either a celebration of a military victory over rebels or mistaken friendly fire among government soldiers - revealed the precarious state of security in the poor central African nation, which is engaged in proxy wars with neighbors Sudan and Central African Republic while also hosting more than 300,000 refugees from those countries.
A former French colony, Chad maintains relatively close ties to the West, and has become the base of operations for aid groups and the European peacekeeping force struggling to contain the ongoing crisis in the neighboring Darfur region of Sudan.
Government officials said the shooting was indeed celebratory fire - but by a Chadian army unit returning from victory over Sudan-based rebels.
Buta reporter witnessed men dressed in military fatigues shooting at each other throughout downtown Abeche. One young man dressed in a mix of civilian and military clothes bled and died while soldiers and fleeing civilians stepped over him.
On Monday an official from the European Union peacekeeping force deployed to eastern Chad said the army perhaps spent Friday night attacking itself.
“It was catastrophic,” said Col. Vincent Fleuret, commander of a French battalion, based outside Abeche and assigned to the EUFOR, the 3,700-strong European Union refugee-protection force in Chad.
Col. Fleuret said there were two popular explanations for the gunfire. It was either celebratory “happy shooting” or a massive friendly-fire incident.
Regarding the latter explanation, Col. Fleuret said there were reports that Chadian soldiers had captured some rebel trucks and were bringing them into Abeche after nightfall when the town´s garrison, mistaking them for rebels, opened fire. That sparked a running gunbattle that rolled across the city and soon involved the well-armed and equally jumpy Abeche police.
Friday´s absurd battle occurred just days after Chadian forces seemingly repulsed the third major incursion this year by Sudan-based militias seeking to topple President Idriss Deby, whose regime has long favored members from the president´s own clan.
The rebels had crossed the border into Chad in early June amid a flurry of press releases announcing the “beginning of the end” of Mr. Deby´s rule.
In February, rebels managed to penetrate hundreds of miles of desert to lay siege to N´Djamena, the capital. As many as 700 people died in that fighting.
The latest incursion, by contrast, reached no further than 50 miles into Chad. Chadian helicopters attacked rebel columns. Government troops streamed into border towns in pickup trucks sporting heavy machine guns. N´Djamena claimed its forces killed more than 100 rebels, although this figure is impossible to verify.
Ramadan Erdebou, governor of the region encompassing several major eastern towns, said the Chadian army´s performance this summer rivaled its legendary destruction of a Libyan military base during fighting with that country in the mid-1980s.
“Today´s Chad is not yesterday´s Chad,” he said.
But Friday´s incident might tell another story - that of a fragile, poorly disciplined army that is as dangerous to itself as it is to any rebel group, and that suffers massive desertions at the first sound of gunfire.
On Friday, teenaged Chadian soldiers darted down alleys and climbed over walls to escape the fighting. Two young soldiers - neither older than 15 - broke into a guesthouse adjacent to an army base looking for civilian clothes and for a place to hide their AK-47s.
Two days later, one of the young deserters returned to the guesthouse, escorted by adults, to ask for the uniform he had shed. The guesthouse proprietor made him promise to bring back any civilian clothes he had taken.
The recruitment of child soldiers is a problem on both sides of Chad´s civil conflict. The aid group Care International runs a school in N´Djamena for re-integrating former child soldiers into peaceful society.
One deserter on Friday - a man in his early 20s who said his first name was Ahmed - said “it would not be good” if anyone found out he abandoned his post. He threatened a reporter with a knife.