N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - Chad’s government on Wednesday displayed more than 100 prisoners it said were captured during a rebel assault on the capital this month, branding them Sudanese mercenaries, Islamic militants and members of al Qaeda.
The prisoners, many of them children, were packed into a tiny courtyard of N’Djamena’s police headquarters which smelt of excrement.
Many appeared exhausted, seated barefoot on the concrete floor, while others stared blankly into the distance as journalists scrambled to film them.
“They are from the Islamic Legion, from al Qaeda, or purely and simply mercenaries,” said Interior Minister Mahamat Ahmat Bachir, as he showed journalists an ammunition box filled with ID cards and documents he claimed belonged to the rebels.
Bachir did not explain why the government had waited for more than a week after the February 2 attack on N’Djamena to present the prisoners.
More than 160 people were killed in two days of confused street fighting which sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing into Cameroon and hampered a massive relief program in eastern Chad, which borders Sudan’s Darfur region.
Many of the documents were written in Arabic, while some ID cards were those of men belonging to the Rally of Forces for Change (RFC), a rebel group led by Timane Erdimi, a nephew of Chadian President Idriss Deby.
Bachir said more than 40 percent of the 135 prisoners were Sudanese. Deby’s government has accused Khartoum of supporting the rebel coalition in Chad in order to export Arab Islamic militancy westward across the Sahara.
“Even those who are Chadian are not really Chadian, they are mercenaries in the pay of Sudan,” Bachir added. “They came to invade our country, they were sent by (Sudanese President) Omar al-Bashir to come and destabilize not only Chad, but all of Africa.”
The minister said the captives would be treated as prisoners of war, even those who seemed to be under 18. “These are not child soldiers, they are child mercenaries,” he told journalists.
One room in the compound had been reserved for the wounded, who lay on the floor with bandaged limbs and drips hanging from a string along the ceiling.
The minister vowed to search for rebels still hiding in N’Djamena and said house-to-house searches would continue: “Anyone who hides a rebel will be treated as a rebel.”
It was not clear when some prisoners had been captured. One 19-year-old boy pulled from the crowd to talk with journalists said he was captured in the eastern town of Tissi in December, and had not taken part in the battle for N’Djamena.
At this point the government delegation ended the visit.
When asked earlier about the fate of three opposition members arrested in the wake of the rebel attack, Bachir said the government had only heard about this on the radio and was conducting its own judicial enquiry on Tuesday.
France, which has strongly backed Deby’s government, called on Tuesday for immediate clarification of their whereabouts.
“When these people were arrested, the zones where they live were controlled by mercenaries,” Bachir said.
Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tim Pearce