(Recasts with details of Irish troops coming under fire)
By Finbarr O'Reilly
GOZ-BEIDA, Chad, June 14 Rebels in eastern Chad on Saturday attacked a town where European Union troops were protecting civilian refugees, and Irish soldiers came under fire during the fighting, an Irish officer and aid workers said.
Irish troops stationed at the town of Goz-Beida defended themselves with brief "warning fire" from their armoured vehicles during a clash between Chad's army and a rebel column that attacked the town, an Irish army spokesman said.
"It is not clear who fired upon our troops ... There are no Irish casualties and all vehicles are operational," Commandant Gavin Young said in a statement. The Irish troops were part of a European Union protection force (EUFOR) deployed in east Chad.
Medical workers said at least 24 people were hurt in the attack on the town, which came on the third day of what rebel forces say is an offensive aimed at trying to end President Idriss Deby's rule over landlocked, oil producing Chad.
It was believed to be the first time since their deployment that EUFOR troops had come under fire during fighting involving the rebels, who attacked the capital N'Djamena in February.
Goz-Beida, 70 km (40 miles) by road from Chad's border with Sudan's Darfur region, is surrounded by U.N.-run camps housing Sudanese and Chadian refugees. They are being protected by an Irish battalion, the 97th Infantry, serving with EUFOR.
"At approximately 12.30 p.m. today an armoured Irish patrol received fire, in their general direction, as they were monitoring a clash between Chadian army and rebel forces," Young said in the statement made available to Reuters.
Other witnesses reported heavy fighting at Goz-Beida, in which smoke rose from the town and firing from machineguns and heavy weapons was heard. A heavily-armed column of rebel vehicles entered the town, but then left a few hours later.
Aid workers reported clashes around the compound of the British charity Oxfam, followed by calm.
"The situation in Goz-Beida is currently calm, but tense," Young said, adding the Irish troops were maintaining a presence at the camps for Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadians.
FRANCE URGES "POLITICAL SOLUTION"
Spokesmen for the rebel National Alliance, speaking to Reuters by phone, said Goz-Beida was under the control of rebel forces and that other insurgent columns were moving westwards.
On a visit to Ivory Coast, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said he had received information that the rebels had been "pushed back" by government forces from Abeche, Chad's second city and a hub for humanitarian operations in the east.
But there was no independent confirmation.
Rebel spokesmen said they were not seeking confrontation with EUFOR troops. "We have no desire to clash with EUFOR forces as long as they remain neutral," one rebel spokesman, Abderaman Koulamallah, told Reuters by telephone from France.
Former colonial power France, which has warplanes and troops in Chad and strongly backed President Deby when he survived an earlier fierce rebel assault on the capital N'Djamena in February, called for a "political solution" in Chad.
"Any armed action targeting Chad and its institutions can only be condemned by France and the international community," the French Foreign ministry said in Paris.
Before the assault on Goz-Beida the attacking rebel column had up to 100 pick-up trucks.
Some of the vehicles had machine-guns mounted on the back, others carried rebel fighters, their heads and faces swathed in turbans against the dust, holding automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They waved and cheered.
Chad's government has rejected the rebel announcements of a new major offensive as "rebel propaganda" but has said "mercenaries in the pay of Sudan" -- the term it usually uses to describe the insurgents -- crossed into Chad on Wednesday.
A fresh Chadian rebel offensive against Deby had been widely expected since Sudanese Darfuri insurgents attacked the Sudanese capital Khartoum in May. Both countries accuse each other of supporting rebel groups hostile to each others' governments.
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(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher, editing by Jeremy Lovell)