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By Moumine Ngarmbassa
N'DJAMENA, July 2 (Reuters) - Chad said on Wednesday its security forces had killed 66 followers of an Islamic spiritual leader who was threatening to launch a holy war against Christians and atheists from Africa to Europe.
The 28-year-old Muslim holy man, or "sheikh", Ahmat Ismael Bichara, was arrested after hundreds of his disciples armed with swords, spears, bows and clubs fought gendarmes armed with automatic rifles at a southeastern village on Sunday and Monday.
Four members of the Chadian security forces were also killed and six wounded in the one-sided battles at Kouno, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
Bichara, his lip bloodied, wearing a white robe and reciting verses from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, was presented by the authorities to journalists in N'Djamena on Wednesday along with seven of his captured followers.
Ministers in the landlocked ethnically mixed African country, where just over the half the population is Muslim, said the government had been obliged to act against the Islamic holy man to stop him triggering a religious war in the country.
"Since June 3, he has been calling on all Muslims to prepare to engage in a holy war against Christians and atheists, saying that the war would be launched from Chad to as far as Denmark," Security Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bachir told journalists.
Cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad published by newspapers in Denmark in 2006 touched off a wave of violent protests in Islamic countries.
Largely arid Chad has suffered waves of violence over the last few years, including not just raids over the eastern border from Sudan by Janjaweed militia and attacks by anti-government rebels, but also bloody clashes between Arab and non-Arab communities. Some analysts describe east Chad, along with neighbouring Darfur, as a tribal and religious tinderbox.
"Ahmat Ismael Bichara's actions could have plunged the country into fire and blood," Information Minister Mahamat Hissene said, explaining the government's use of force.
Security Minister Bachir said Bichara's followers, whom he described as "intoxicated by indescribable extremism ... almost mad", had "thrown themselves" against the government forces, apparently believing they were immune to bullets.
He said they had taken over the village of Kouno, burning down four Christian churches, a police station and a health centre, as well as torching 158 homes belonging to people who refused to join them.
"In the face of this, the government could not stand by and do nothing," Bachir said.
He said 66 of the holy man's followers were killed and 51 seriously wounded in the clashes at Kouno. He corrected a previous toll he gave of 63 dead.
"It's a regrettable toll, but we think we now control the situation caused by the actions carried out by these terrorists, these extremists," Bachir said.
In its first report on Tuesday of the violence at Kouno, the government said Bichara had declared he wanted to fight against corruption of the Islamic faith and to restore justice.
Authorities said they had sent numerous envoys to try to reason with him, including representatives of the country's Higher Council of Islamic Affairs. But Bichara "refused to listen to reason," the government said. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/) (Writing by Pascal Fletcher, editing by Mary Gabriel)