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Fighting in Chad capital as rebels attempt coup

Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of well-armed rebels swept into the capital of Chad on Saturday, battling soldiers in an attempt to overthrow the government.

Gunfire was reported throughout N’Djamena as an estimated 1,000 rebels tried to push their way toward the presidential palace, but details were sketchy because most of the country’s phone lines were cut off. “The situation is very fluid,” said one Western official.

Both sides claimed to be winning the fight. Chadian officials denied rumors that the capital had fallen.

“The situation is under control,” Chad’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Cherif Mahamat Zene, told the Associated Press, adding that President Idriss Deby was “fine” and in his palace.

An American human rights activist working in N’Djamena wrote on his blog Saturday that he and other foreigners were huddling inside a hotel dining room, hoping to be evacuated. At one point, smoke could be seen rising from the presidential palace.

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“We go through some quiet minutes, and it feels close to normal, but then, consistently, we get big bangs and nonstop gunfire that brings us back to the reality of N’Djamena,” wrote Gabriel Stauring of Redondo Beach, co-founder of StopGenocideNow.org. “As I write this, a shell hit way too close to us, the kind of bang you feel on your skin.”

By early this morning, he said in an e-mail to The Times, fighting and gunfire had subsided.

An estimated 500 Americans live and work in Chad. The U.S. Embassy offered to evacuate nonessential personnel and private citizens wishing to leave.

“The serious violence that has occurred has not been directed at any U.S. personnel or facilities,” State Department spokesman Karl Duckworth said.

Chad, one of Africa’s largest oil producers, is also home to several U.S. business units, including a subsidiary of Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp.

African Union leaders, gathered in Ethiopia for their annual meeting, condemned the rebel attack.

“It’s not acceptable,” said Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, the group’s new chairman. “If the rebellion succeeds, we will excommunicate them from the African Union.”

Rebel convoys of 250 to 300 trucks began their journey two days ago from the Sudanese border.

In 2006, the same coalition of rebel groups, including former government officials and disgruntled relatives of Deby, attempted a similar coup but suffered an embarrassing defeat shortly after entering N’Djamena.

This time, rebels appear to have learned from their mistakes, feigning an attack from one side of the capital and entering from another, analysts said.

France has more than 1,000 troops in Chad, which was a French colony until 1960. During the 2006 attack, French soldiers offered intelligence and logistical support. But it was unclear Saturday whether the French would intervene again.

Deby is facing increasing pressure from opponents, who accuse him of corruption. He has poured much of his nation’s oil wealth into building up military forces, now estimated at 5,000 troops in the capital.

The likely spark for the recent attack was the pending deployment of a European Union force to eastern Chad, where peacekeepers were to help provide security for 250,000 Darfur refugees who fled violence in neighboring western Sudan.

European Union officials said Saturday that the deployment would be postponed.

“The prospect of the EU deployment was one factor motivating the [rebels] to make [their] recent westward assault, since the rebels feared that the EU presence would disrupt their haven on the Chadian-Sudanese border,” according to a report Saturday by Strategic Forecasting, a Texas-based research firm.

Some observers believe that the Sudanese government played a role, though Sudanese officials deny supporting the Chadian rebels. Chad accuses Sudan of supporting its rebel groups and vice versa.

“The Sudan factor is decisive,” said John Prendergast, co-chairman of the international human rights advocacy project Enough. “They want Deby gone. And if they don’t get him this time, in six or eight months we are going to see another run.”

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com


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