N'DJAMENA, Oct 12 Chad's Defence Minister Mahamat Nour called for calm on Friday after a group of former rebel fighters loyal to him deserted their positions and moved to the border with Sudan's Darfur region.
Speaking on Radio France International (RFI), Nour said a force of ex-members of the former rebel group FUC (United Front for Democratic Change) which he once led had pulled out of the eastern town of Guereda late on Wednesday.
"They're unhappy," Nour said. RFI cited some of his aides as saying the armed group numbered 1,000 men and that they had abandoned their positions because they believed other members of Chad's national army were planning to disarm them by force.
But Chadian officials played down the incident and said the situation was calm. "The FUC men who withdrew towards the frontier have begun to come back to Abeche and Guereda," a Chadian presidency official, who asked not to be named, said.
In ethnically mixed east Chad where clan rivalries run deep, Nour's Tama fighters have clashed in the past with militiamen of the Zaghawa clan to which President Idriss Deby belongs.
But the apparent desertions raised the prospect of fresh splits inside Chad's fractious armed forces at a time when Deby's government is trying to push through a peace deal with eastern rebel groups in the oil producing African state.
It also coincides with an explosion of renewed violence over the border in Sudan's Darfur region, where rebels, militias and African Union peacekeepers have tangled in recent clashes ahead of planned Darfur peace talks in Tripoli this month.
A European Union peacekeeping force is due to deploy in eastern Chad in the coming weeks to complement a even bigger United Nations/African Union force planned for Darfur.
Nour, who was named defence minister in March after signing a Libyan-brokered peace deal with Deby, told RFI the ex-FUC deserters were at Birak close to the Sudanese border.
"I ask those who have deserted to listen to us, to be patient until we can find an amicable solution," he said.
"To those who are still with us (on the government side), I ask them to remain calm, to hold their positions and to continue to serve the Chadian national army as soldiers," Nour added.
"This country needs peace," he added. Nour spoke to RFI from an unidentified country outside Chad but said he would soon return to N'Djamena.
Nour, who said he was recovering from an illness, said he maintained good relations with Deby, who has ruled since he took power through an eastern revolt in 1990.
"But I don't have good relations with all the men who are around the president," Nour said.
Deby's government, which has been shaken by splits and military desertions over the last two years, signed a peace deal in Libya last week with four rebel groups.
The accord initialled in Tripoli promises the rebels government posts in return for a ceasefire, but some rebel leaders have said differences remain over disarmament.
Nour signed his own peace deal with Deby in December, eight months after his FUC rebels raided Chad's capital N'Djamena.