Yet another ‘last stand’ for President Deby?

On 2 and 3 February rebels in Chad engaged the Chadian army in two days of street fighting in the capital N’djamena before being repelled as the government claims, or making a strategic retreat to suburbs according to the rebels. This is a chronology of the events leading up to the weekend’s hostilities.

The closest the rebels had previously come to seizing control of the capital and the country was in April 2006. One month before presidential elections, columns of fighters swept across the country in less than a week and brought their fight to the capital’s doorstep. Around 200 fighters and civilians were killed in one day of fighting in a N’djamena suburb, the International Committee for the Red Cross said.

That attack failed in part because the rebels, most apparently unfamiliar with N’djamena’s unnamed streets and lack of sign posts, lost their way when they reached the city centre and attacked the empty National Assembly building on the outskirts instead of the Presidential Palace in the centre.

Deby – survivor?

Chad’s President Idriss Deby is no stranger to fighting for survival read an IRIN profile of Deby. A French-trained helicopter pilot and former colonel in Chad’s army, in 1989 Deby formed his own rebel movement in Sudan, with the backing of Khartoum.


Photo: IRIN
Map of Chad

Said by analysts to be a master strategist, in 1990 he swept back into Chad and seized control of the vast, semi-desert country with barely a shot fired.

Deby convened and won elections in 1996 and 2001, but has battled waves of discontent from his own military throughout his rule. Infighting among ethnic groups, and irritation over the president’s failure to support rebels fighting his former backers in Khartoum, have fuelled the dissent, analysts say.

The rebellion picked up steam in June 2004 when Deby claimed to have won a disputed referendum allowing him to circumvent a constitutional limit on presidential terms in office. Waves of defections from the army in 2005 bolstered a Chadian rebel movement in neighbouring Sudan estimated at the time to be about 3,000-strong.

Rebels

In interviews with journalists, rebel spokespersons rarely express goals except kicking Deby out, and the political wings of the rebel groups have made various pronouncements under ever-chnging alliances and names as they have tried to reconcile their political and military differences.

Rebel leaders are cagey about their strength or backing, making definitive figures hard to come by, but the columns that moved on N’djamena over the weekend were estimated to be 2,000-strong, the rebels moving in some 300 armed vehicles and jeeps.

Deby has accused Khartoum of providing the rebels with direct support. Khartoum has frequently denied the accusation, and accused Chad of being sympathetic to rebel groups fighting the Sudanese government.

Chad and Sudan have signed several accords pledging to expel rebels from their territories and protect their shared border, including in February 2006 and February 2007 in Tripoli, Libya, and in August 2006 in Dakar, Senegal.

Following the 3-4 February 2008 attack on the capital, N’djamena said it was holding Sudan responsible for backing the rebels and would pursue the rebels inside Sudanese territory if required.

Civilians

Apart from the attacks on N’djamena, rebels have largely kept civilians out of their fight with the government. Civilian deaths and injuries have been low in the dozens of skirmishes, although fighting in eastern Chad has sometimes spilled over into refugee camps for Sudanese from Darfur and obstructed aid operations.

Human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and a 2007 UN report, have said the Chad government’s preoccupation with its own survival has left it unable – or unwilling – to protect the border.

''The Chad government's preoccupation with its own survival has left it unable - or unwilling - to protect the border''

In the military vacuum, attacks by militias crossing the border from Darfur have become commonplace, and inter-communal grievances have turned violent. Around 55,000 Chadian civilians in the east of the country fled their homes in 2006, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). By February 2008 the number of displaced had reached 180,000.

Uncertainty

Diplomats say what makes the rebels a threat to regional peace is the uncertainty about how a divided rebellion would unite and then govern the vast and extremely poor country that borders Cameroon, Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, and Niger. Chad's largely untapped oil reserve provides a huge incentive to hold on to the reins of power.

The UN Security Council has authorised a European Union mandated peacekeeping mission for Chad and Central African Republic to protect civilians and refugees. Some 3,700 troops were to start deploying in mid-February for a one-year mission.

Javier Solana, EU foreign policy minister, told journalists on 4 February that that plan is now “on hold” but maintained that the peacekeeping troops would still deploy if and when calm returns.


Chronology of rebel attacks during last 12 months:

February 2008
- Rebels attack N’djamena

January 2008
- European Union signs off on peacekeeping mission in Chad and CAR

December 2007
- Minister of Defence and ex-rebel Mahamat Nour removed from government after week of intense fighting between army and rebels on several fronts in the east
- Rights groups accuse army of using forced recruitment – including of children – to bolster ranks

November 2007
- Tripoli peace deal renounced by two rebel groups and heavy fighting reported in east as well increase in banditry. Hospitals in N’djamena and Abeche “swamped” with wounded soldiers and rebels

October 2007
- After lull in hostilities, former rebels supposedly being integrated into the national army engage the army and over-run Chadian towns in the east
- Chadian government and four rebel groups sign peace deal in Tripoli, Libya
- Government imposes state of emergency

May 2007
- Chadian and international analysts warn that stability is eroding in Chad as military and rebels appear to be building up

March 2007
- Newly installed UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes warns international community is under-estimating the crisis in Chad
- Mahamat Nour, former leader of alliance of 13 rebel groups opposed to Deby, appointed Minister of Defence in brokered peace deal meant to end the rebellion and integrate rebel soldiers into the national army

November 2006
- Military and humanitarian aid hub and strategic city Abeche is attacked and briefly seized by rebels forcing UN evacuation

October 2006
- Rebels briefly capture Goz Beida, a major aid agency hub 60 km from the Sudan border
- Heavy fighting between Sudanese rebel groups and the Sudanese army spills over the border near refugee camps at Oure Cassoni, 400 km northeast of Abeche

September 2006
- Government launches major offensive against rebel positions in the Aram Kolle mountains 150 km north of Abeche. 168 rebels reportedly killed in fighting
- Fighting also reported near Adré and Birak, close to the Sudan border. No information on casualties

August 2006
- Deby unilaterally renegotiates profit sharing and tax agreements with major foreign oil companies in Chad

July 2006
- Rebels again attack government positions at Ade in the east. Government spokesperson said attacks against army loyalists happening “incessantly”

May 2006
- Presidential election day passed off peacefully despite opposition boycott and rebel threats. Deby declared victor

April 2006
- Rebels with the United Front for Democratic Change (FUC), a coalition of 13 rebel groups, make a westward sprint across the country from Sudan and Central African Republic, briefly seizing the towns of Goz Beida, Am Timan and Mongo before launching an attack on N’djamena

March 2006
- Government says it thwarted an attempt by army defectors to shoot down Deby’s plane as he returned from a summit
- Army and rebels clash again near Adré; rebels claim 200 soldiers killed
- In a second larger battle near Adé and Moudeina on the Chad-Sudan border “dozens” killed, including Deby’s army chief and main strategist

December 2005
- Some 370 rebels and army loyalists claimed dead after 40 rebel trucks attacked Adré, a Chadian border post with Sudan 1,000 km east of N’djamena

November 2005
- Armed men attacked an army training centre 25 km south of N’djamena and dozens more attacked two military bases inside the capital

October 2005
- 40 government soldiers who say they oppose Deby’s re-election defect to join a Chadian rebel group operating in eastern Chad
- Deby dissolves 5,000-strong presidential guard and analysts suggest the government has gone into “survival mode”

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[This report updates “Chad: Rebels on the rocky road to N’djamena”, 26 October 2006]