N'DJAMENA Chad's President Idriss Deby said on Wednesday his government was in total control of the country after beating back a rebel offensive in fighting which killed at least 100 civilians at the weekend.
Making his first public appearance since rebels attacked the capital N'Djamena on Saturday and besieged his presidential palace, Deby accused the president of neighboring Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, of backing the rebel offensive.
"We have total control of the situation, not only in the capital, but also the whole country," Deby, wearing military uniform, told a news conference at his palace in N'Djamena after meeting French Defense Minister Herve Morin.
Morin flew in to Chad to show French support for its former colony, where it has warplanes and more than 1,000 troops stationed. France initially said it was "neutral" as fighting raged at the weekend, but later threw its weight behind Deby.
The bodies of at least 100 civilians lay in N'Djamena's three main hospitals and as many as 700 more people were being treated for bullet wounds and injuries from mortar fire, Guilhem Molinie, head of mission for MSF-Brussels, told Reuters.
He said the death toll was likely to rise as Red Cross workers were still recovering bodies.
After obtaining U.N. Security Council support for Deby's government, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Tuesday his country could intervene if needed against the rebels, whom Chad says are supported by Sudan. Khartoum denies this.
Deby, who has fought off several rebel bids to end his 18-year rule in the central African oil producer, said he had not yet asked the French army to step in.
After meeting Morin, the former French-trained helicopter pilot said he could consider pardoning six French aid workers jailed by Chad for abducting children, if France requested it.
The members of charity Zoe's Ark were jailed in December for eight years for trying to fly 103 African children to Europe without permission. France's close relationship with Chad had already helped secure their transfer to a French jail and a pardon would be a further sign of mutual cooperation.
REBELS VOW RETURN
Rebel forces said they were still occupying positions "around N'Djamena" and vowed to fight any French intervention.
"If we are attacked, then we have the right to legitimately defend ourselves," rebel spokesman Ali Ordjo Hemchi said, urging France not to back a "failed regime".
He said rebel forces had routed early on Wednesday a column of pro-Deby "Toro-boro" Sudanese rebels north east of the capital, but there was no independent confirmation of this.
Deby's government said it had defeated its Chadian rebel foes, who had made a lightning advance last week from the eastern border with Sudan's war-torn Darfur region.
A second rebel spokesman, Abderamane Koullamalah, said an army helicopter was bombarding insurgents 100 km (62 miles) northeast of N'Djamena. But he added the rebels would return.
"We'll retake the offensive in a few days," he said.
The increased conflict has delayed the deployment of a 3,700-strong European Union peacekeeping force to east Chad to protect thousands of Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadians who have fled violence spilling over from Sudan's Darfur.
Relief officials said the unrest was blocking aid flights to more than half a million refugees and civilians in the east.
The British charity Save the Children called on the United Nations to organize urgent supply airlifts from neighboring Cameroon and Central African Republic.
"It has to happen within 48 hours," said Gareth Owen, Save the Children's Head of Emergencies. "Otherwise the humanitarian aid effort will start to unravel."
Tens of thousands of N'Djamena residents fled into Cameroon and Nigeria after the fighting, but hundreds started returning on Wednesday. A Chadian police officer with a megaphone told the crowd at the border: "Come back home. N'Djamena is at peace".
French warplanes have been flying reconnaissance missions over rebel positions and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Wednesday that a rebel force of between 100 and 200 vehicles was still somewhere east of the capital.