The plot is thickening in an already conflict-ridden zone as Chad’s military made good on threats to pursue rebels into Sudanese territory following heavy fighting in an eastern border town over the weekend.
“The attacks were repulsed by the Chadian army which, using its right to pursuit, destroyed a few rebel bases implanted in Sudanese territory,” said Chadian Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmad Allami, speaking on Monday to foreign ambassadors in the capital N’Djamena.
Adre, a dusty border post a mere 500 metres from Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, was under government control and the situation was generally calm on Tuesday with no shots fired since midday on Monday, according to Ginette Le Breton of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Chad’s longtime president, Idriss Deby, has been in a difficult situation since the outbreak of war in the Sudanese province of Darfur in February 2003.
On the one hand, Deby did not want to anger the neighbour which had backed his rise to power through a 1990 coup. On the other, the president’s own Zaghawa ethnic group which inhabits the area on both sides of the border was placing pressure on him to back his kinsmen in the conflict.
Deby’s perceived failure to intervene is often cited as a reason for the string of military desertions and increasing rebel activity in the east, the region which has served as a springboard to power for the country’s last two presidents. The rebels are demanding nothing less than the president’s resignation.
But now, the gloves are off with Sudan. On Monday, Chad’s foreign minister accused the Sudanese government of playing a destabilising role in the region and expressed concern over the possible accession of its neighbour to the African Union presidency when Nigeria’s term is up.
“In any event, Africa must not allow (Sudanese President Umar) al-Bashir to be the next president of the Union if it does not want to encourage him in his catastrophic and belligerent policies, as much within his own country as towards his neighbours,” foreign minister Allami said.
Sudan has denied interference in Chad’s affairs and has countered accusations with similar charges against its neighbour.
At a briefing to the UN Security Council on Tuesday, Jan Egeland UN humanitarian affairs chief, warned that further fighting in eastern Chad and Darfur could impede the largest humanitarian operation in the world.
“A further deterioration of the situation would pose a threat to ongoing relief operations to Sudanese refugees and could trigger a serious humanitarian crisis,” Egeland said.
Sunday’s fighting was qualified as serious incident by a diplomat in the capital, who said that a column of 40 rebel vehicles rolled into the isolated desert border town. Aid workers reported hearing explosions from camps in Darfur.
In a statement broadcast over the radio on Monday, Chad’s military put the number of dead at 300 rebels, 5 soldiers, and 3 civilians.
The rebel Rally for Democracy and Liberty (RDL) countered these figures with claims of 70 dead on the government side compared to only nine of their own.
An IRIN correspondent who visited the battlefield on Monday said he had seen approximately 20 bodies which government officials told him belonged to the rebel side.
Medecins Sans Frontieres claimed to have treated about 30 people in the Adre hospital but would not speculate on whether their patients were combatants or civilians, or whether this figure represented the total number of wounded.
“There is different information out there and we’re still collecting it in order to know the real story,” the diplomat said. “It takes time to confirm these things.”