N'DJAMENA Chadian President Idriss Deby sacked his defense minister on Saturday after doubts emerged about his ability to control former rebels as the government faced a renewed insurgency in the east.
Mahamat Nour Abdelkerim, a former anti-Deby rebel chief who became defense minister in March after making peace with the government, was relieved of his post after he sought refuge in the Libyan embassy in N'Djamena, officials said.
Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-Mi told reporters there had been doubts about whether former insurgents whom Nour had once led were really loyal to Deby at a time when the government army was battling rebels in the east of the landlocked country.
"We could not understand why he went to take refuge in an embassy of a friendly country," he said.
Deby himself has been directing combat operations by the government army this week against rebels from another insurgent group, the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD), which abandoned a month-old peace accord a week ago.
Nour's position had been tenuous since last month, when former rebel fighters loyal to him deserted from the army and were involved in ethnic clashes with a rival community on Chad's eastern border with Sudan's violent Darfur region.
The former members of the rebel United Front for Democratic Change (FUC), which Nour once commanded, come from the Tama ethnic group. They had been resisting efforts to disarm them by the government army and militia from Deby's own Zaghawa ethnic clan.
Chadian troops and ex-FUC fighters clashed on Friday at Guereda, an eastern border town in the Tama heartland, residents said. Several people were reported killed or injured.
"We wanted to control this group which created confusion," Allam-Mi said.
Deby's sacking of his defense minister injected further uncertainty into the situation in conflict-torn eastern Chad ahead of the planned deployment there of a European Union peacekeeping force early next year. The EU force has been tasked by the United Nations to protect refugees and aid workers.
No replacement for Nour was immediately announced.
In the worst fighting in eastern Chad in months, government troops and the UFDD rebels fought several battles in the last week which both sides said killed hundreds. The UFDD is led by another former defense minister, Mahamat Nouri, who defected to join a two-year-old eastern insurgency against Deby.
Diplomats said Nour's sacking could trigger more bloodletting around Guereda between Nour's Tama fighters and members of Deby's ruling Zaghawa clan.
Chad declared a state of emergency last month along its eastern border with Darfur after ethnic fighting between the Tamas and Zaghawas killed at least 20 people.
Deby's government has accused Sudan of supporting the UFDD rebels, who are largely drawn from their chief Nouri's Gorane ethnic group. Khartoum routinely denies accusations that it supports anti-Deby rebels.
The EU force for Chad, which will also send soldiers to the northeast of the Central African Republic, is intended to try to help contain a widening conflict in Darfur, which has pushed armed raiders and refugees across the border.
It will complement a bigger United Nations/African Union peacekeeping force planned for Darfur, where political and ethnic conflict triggered by a 2003 rebellion has killed at least 200,000 people, experts say.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood)