N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - France threw its weight behind Chad’s President Idriss Deby on Tuesday, saying it could intervene against armed rebels whose weekend attack on the capital threatened to trigger a fresh humanitarian crisis.
After obtaining U.N. Security Council backing for Deby’s government, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned the rebels France would “do its duty” and had the means to respond to any unlawful attack against its former colony.
France has more than 1,000 troops, as well as aircraft, stationed in Chad which have given logistical and intelligence support to Deby’s army in its fight against the rebels.
“Our biggest handicap is the French army, not Idriss Deby,” Mahamat Nouri, head of the rebel UFDD faction, told French radio RFI. “Without France, we are ready to chase Deby away today.”
Nouri said his troops lost many vehicles during two days of fierce combat in which they reached the brink of the presidential palace, but they remained camped 25 km (16 miles) from N’Djamena. “We are not ready to return to Sudan,” he said.
Chad has accused Sudan of supporting an offensive by the rebels, who stormed into the capital of the oil-producing central African country on Saturday. Khartoum denies this and accuses Chad in turn of supporting rebels in its Darfur region.
The city was calm on Tuesday. Ambulances collected the dead, although witnesses said some bodies still lay in central avenues. Some streets bore the scars of bullets and shells.
Fearing fresh attacks, more than 50,000 people fled south from N’Djamena into northern Cameroon across the bridge over the Longone-Chari river. Thousands more were displaced in and around N’Djamena and food and clean water were running short.
“I’m deeply concerned that we’re seeing another serious humanitarian crisis developing,” said Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid.
He announced in Brussels the European Commission had set aside 2 million euros ($2.96 million) in humanitarian funding to help meet the needs of refugees, displaced people and other vulnerable groups hit by violence in the west and east of Chad.
The United States also appealed for an end to the conflict in Chad, where a U.S.-led consortium has been extracting oil since 2003.
“What we have called for is the rebels to withdraw ... (and for) the Sudanese government, if they are providing support for
the rebels, to withdraw that support,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.
Rebel leaders, responding to African Union mediation efforts, have offered to accept a ceasefire. But at least one rebel spokesman said this was conditional on Deby ending his 18-year rule, which critics say is corrupt and dictatorial.
Chadian Prime Minister Nouradine Delwa Kassire Coumakoye dismissed talk of a truce. “A ceasefire, why? We’d agree a ceasefire with who?” he told France 24 television.
Amnesty International demanded that Deby’s government reveal the whereabouts of four leading opposition figures it said were arrested at their homes by security forces on Sunday. It said they were at risk of being “tortured or forcibly disappeared”.
Chad’s Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-mi told a news conference in Paris alongside his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner that he was unaware of any political arrests.
The French, who have used their troops and planes to evacuate hundreds of foreign nationals from N’Djamena, strongly deny rebel accusations their troops have fought to defend Deby.
Deby’s government says it routed the insurgents using tanks and helicopters in chaotic fighting in which hundreds were injured. The rebels have said they withdrew to regroup.
France obtained a non-binding statement from the U.N. Security Council on Monday, which urged countries to support Deby’s government against the rebels.
Sarkozy said this meant his country could intervene in Chad in support of Deby. “If France has to do its duty, it will,” he said during a visit to western France.