Aid groups reduce staff in east after troop desertions

Humanitarian organisations on Monday said they have pulled some non-essential staff from parts of eastern Chad, where the government says it has “surrounded” dissident soldiers and the situation is calm and under control.

The government said on Friday that at least 40 Chadian soldiers had deserted their posts in the capital, N’djamena, and fled to the volatile east of the country, where the United Nations and aid organisations are assisting some 200,000 refugees from Sudan.

In a statement on Monday, the Chadian government insisted that the stability of the region was not in jeopardy.

“The Chadian government thanks [its friends and neighbours] who have expressed concern about the situation in the east," it said. "However the government would like to reassure them that the situation is under control and moreover represents no threat whatsoever to peace and stability in Chad, much less the sub-region.”

Eastern Chad abuts Sudan’s war-wracked Darfur region, where conflict has repeatedly spilled into Chadian towns, and at the weekend Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of neighbouring Libya expressed worry about the defections and a potential threat to regional stability.

Chad’s President Idriss Deby was in the east on Monday, having arrived at the weekend for what the government described as a routine visit for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But Communications Minister Moussa Doumgor told Radio France Internationale that the president would also use the visit to address the problem of the deserters.

Doumgor told the radio that Chadian troops had the dissident soldiers surrounded. “If the mutineers decide to use force, the government will respond with force.”

Humanitarian workers pull out some staff

Humanitarian workers assisting Sudanese refugees in eastern Chad meanwhile have reduced staff in the sub prefecture of Hadjer Hadid, near where the deserters are said to have fled.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has cut its personnel in half, UNHCR public information officer Ginette Le Breton said from the main eastern town of Abeche.

“Given the situation HCR and its other humanitarian partners decided on Sunday to reduce by 50 percent their teams on the ground in Hadjer Hadid,” Le Breton said. The area affected includes two camps - Breidjing and Treguine - housing about 40,000 refugees, she said.

Le Breton said essential services for the refugees at the two camps are not affected.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam, Premiere Urgence and a handful of other NGOs also have staff in the Hadjer Hadid area, she said.

A humanitarian worker in the region, who wished not to be identified, said aid organisations are cutting back staff but that services to the refugees are being maintained as previously.

Dissidents want Deby out

Yahya Dillo, a dissident soldier claiming to head a group of defectors in eastern Chad, told Radio France Internationale this weekend that the group wants Deby out.

“Deby remaining in power is contested at all levels. He is trying to negotiate, but we will not negotiate this way, we will only negotiate his departure,” he said.

Dillo said the dissidents were opposed to Deby’s move in June to modify the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in presidential elections next year.

Tension within the ranks of the armed forces is not a new challenge for Deby, who took power in a coup in 1990, then was elected president in 1996 and 2001 in elections the opposition said were rigged.

In May 2004, dissident soldiers staged a rebellion in N’djamena but were put down by loyalist forces. And last year, Deby accused neighbouring Sudan of backing a 3,000-strong rebel force operating at the border.

Chris Melville, Africa analyst with the London-based research group Global Insight, said on Monday that while it is not clear how many members of the army have deserted, the latest defections appear less serious than the situation during last year’s mutiny.

Still, he said, “If this organisation proves to have genuine political ambitions and have real backing then there is a chance this could escalate into a major headache for Deby."