Chad government 'in complete control'

Chad's president insisted today that his government had total control of the country, even as he said three-quarters of his officials had disappeared during weekend battles with rebels which left hundreds dead and prompted thousands to flee the capital.

Chad's president insisted today that his government had total control of the country, even as he said three-quarters of his officials had disappeared during weekend battles with rebels which left hundreds dead and prompted thousands to flee the capital.

President Idriss Deby made his first public comments since Friday's rebel attack on N'Djamena, and the next day's coup attempt on the presidential palace.

After meeting France's defence minister, Herve Morin, Mr Deby - dressed in a military uniform - denied reports that he had been injured as N'Djamena was besieged. "Look at me, I'm fine," he said, spreading his arms out wide.

"We are in total control, not only of the capital, but of all the country," he said. "The security forces have repulsed the aggressors. The mercenaries directed by Sudan have been forced to flee."

Oil-rich Chad has repeatedly said that neighbouring Sudan is backing the rebels in an attempt to prevent the deployment of a European force to protect refugees from its war-ravaged Darfur region. Sudan has denied involvement, but has long resisted such a force.

Mr Deby said the Chadian army was chasing the rebels, who were fleeing east.

"We are going to catch them before they enter Sudan," he said, speaking for about half an hour while seated in front of the flags of Chad and the African Union.

However, Mr Deby did suggest that his government had been weakened.

"I am working with less than a quarter of the members of my government," he said. "I do not know where the rest have gone to."

"There are traitors. When the time comes we shall work on that issue," he said.

Mr Morin - who flew to Chad in a show of support for the former colony's government - suggested that the rebels had not been routed completely. He told France-Inter radio that his intelligence showed a rebel support column was moving to reinforce the insurgents.

"It is moving slowly," he said without elaborating. He later returned to France

Chad's capital, in the south west of the country, was attacked on Friday by rebels in pick-up trucks who had advanced in a matter of days from their eastern bases near the Sudan border.

The fighting that ensued forced thousands to flee and left streets littered with bodies. Rebels withdrew sometime late on Sunday. By this morning the city was quiet and the streets almost empty.

French officials said earlier today that 100-200 rebel vehicles appeared to have regrouped east of the capital.

The UN Security Council has strongly condemned the attack and authorised France and other nations to help Chad's government. France has given Mr Deby strong support in the past and has about 1,900 soldiers, backed by fighter jets, in Chad.

Libya's UN ambassador said that rebel groups told Libyan officials they were ready for a ceasefire, although the rebels could not be contacted for confirmation.

Chadian health officials pleaded for doctors and nurses to return to N'Djamena to help the wounded.

No death toll has been given, but Chadian Red Cross officials said hundreds of civilians had been shot dead since Saturday, and the International Red Cross has said more than 1,000 were injured. Human rights groups said many were civilians.

The UN refugee agency said some 20,000 people had fled across the Chari River into neighbouring Cameroon since Monday. About 1,000 have taken refuge in northern Nigeria, that country's Red Cross said today.

Chadian soldiers reopened two bridges over the Chari to Cameroon, after having blocked civilians from using them to flee yesterday. For the first time today, more people were crossing the bridges toward N'Djamena than away, apparently heeding a government call to return home.

"We don't have any money, and there's no food. We have been sleeping on the ground," said a man named Nicholas, who declined to give his last name as he hurried on.

An Associated Press reporter on the scene saw mostly small groups of men heading toward N'Djamena, about 40 in an hour. Many said they had left wives and children waiting on the Cameroon side while they returned to protect houses from looters and assess the security situation in the capital.

Eric Mbaye, a middle-aged man from N'Djamena, said churches were overflowing with refugees on the Cameroon side of the river, and he decided it would be better to try to return to his home.

Most shops and buildings in downtown N'Djamena have been looted. Outside the centre, the state broadcasting station and the parliament building were stripped.

No civilian planes - including aid flights - have been allowed into Chad since fighting started, and relief charity Save the Children said it was running out of food and supplies for camps serving more than 500,000 people - including displaced Chadians and Sudanese refugees.

The UN's World Food Programme said its food deliveries to more than 420,000 people are threatened by the violence.

The rebels accuse Mr Deby of corruption and embezzling millions in oil revenue. While many Chadians may share that assessment, the uprising appears to be a power struggle within the elite that has long controlled Chad. Rebellion leaders include Mahamat Nouri, a former defence minister, and Timan Erdimi, a nephew of Mr Deby, who was his chief of staff.

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