ABECHE, Chad (Reuters) - Rebels in eastern Chad said they captured another town on Monday in a multi-pronged offensive that forced the U.N. refugee agency to halt activities in camps sheltering more than 400,000 displaced civilians.
UNHCR made the announcement after a spokesman for the Chadian rebel National Alliance said Biltine, just over 90 km (55 miles) north of east Chad’s main city of Abeche, had fallen to rebel forces fighting to overthrow President Idriss Deby.
There was no immediate reaction from the Chadian government, which has long accused eastern neighbor Sudan of backing anti-Deby insurgents. Sudan denies this, but has accused Chad of supporting Sudanese rebels who attacked Khartoum last month.
Security sources in Abeche, who asked not to be identified, said rebel fighters had been sighted in Biltine.
It was the third town to be attacked in three days by the insurgents, whose columns of armed pick-up trucks have pushed westwards from the border with Sudan into the east of Chad where European Union (EU) troops are protecting refugee camps.
“As of Monday afternoon, UNHCR had to suspend all activities in its twelve refugee camps in the east due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation,” Annette Rehrl, UNHCR’s spokeswoman in eastern Chad, told Reuters.
These 12 camps house around 250,000 Sudanese refugees who had fled the conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region. UNHCR’s suspension of activities would also limit work to help some 180,000 displaced Chadians sheltering at sites in the east.
Chad’s national army sealed off Abeche, which lies some 700 km (450 miles) east N’Djamena and is the main hub for international humanitarian operations in the east.
Besides U.N. relief agencies and other aid groups, troops from both former colonial power France and from the EU military protection force (EUFOR) in Chad are stationed at Abeche.
The rebels have said their aim is to push westwards towards N’Djamena, which they attacked in early February. Deby has ruled Chad, a minor oil producer, since seizing power in 1990.
Security sources in Chad said the rebels appeared to have varied their tactics. “February was a charge to N’Djamena. This time it looks like a war of maneuvers,” one source said.
U.N. CONDEMNS REBELS
In a unanimous policy statement, the 15-nation U.N. Security Council condemned the rebel offensive. It demanded armed groups “cease violence immediately,” and called on states in the region to cooperate to end the activities of the groups.
N’Djamena was calm on Monday, but the U.S. embassy sent non-essential staff and family members over the southern border to Cameroon. Government offices, markets and banks stayed open.
“Of course we’re frightened. Back in February, we were told nothing was happening and the next thing we knew the rebels arrived,” one local resident said, asking not to be named.
Chad’s government, while acknowledging rebel columns are on the move in the east, has played down the extent of the insurgent offensive, calling it “rebel propaganda”.
On Saturday, a rebel column briefly occupied Goz-Beida, more than 200 km (125 miles) south of Abeche, witnesses said.
On Sunday, Chad’s government said another rebel column “passed through” lightly-protected Am-Dam 140 km (85 miles) southwest of Abeche.
“We don’t keep the towns (we take), we are harassing,” Gadaye told Reuters, explaining the hit-and-run rebel strategy.
Gadaye said the rebel alliance welcomed a statement made by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Sunday during a visit to Ivory Coast. Kouchner said France “has not intervened and will not intervene” in the latest fighting in Chad.
France’s government, which has warplanes and troops based in Chad under a cooperation accord, strongly backed Deby when he survived the last rebel assault on N’Djamena in early February.
Gadaye urged France to show “strict neutrality” by halting reconnaissance flights by its warplanes over rebel positions.
He also called on foreign humanitarian organizations to remain in Chad. “The National Alliance assures the NGOs that from now on it will guarantee their security,” Gadaye said.
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Additional reporting by Moumine Ngarmbassa in N’Djamena, Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Matthew Jones
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