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Chad declares victory over rebels

AFP (5/9/09)

NDJAMENA; Chad declared victory Saturday over Sudan-based rebels after fierce desert battles that left scores dead and then threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Khartoum.

"The government must re-evaluate relations between Sudan and Chad, and envisages, if the situation does not evolve positively, the rupture of these relations," said President Idriss Deby Itno.

"To this end, Sudanese cultural centres must be closed and schools financed by Sudan must be taken over by the Chadian government. Teachers who are really intelligence agents ought to return home."

Deby, who addressed the nation from the presidential palace in front of political leaders of all stripes, accuses Sudan of backing the rebels who want to seize the capital Ndjamena and oust him from power.

Deby seized power himself in a similar rebellion in 1990, also launched from Sudan.

In February 2008, rebels battled their way to the gates of the presidential palace in Ndjamena before being beaten back, thanks largely to French logistical help for government forces.

Chadian Defence Minister Adoum Younousmi told AFP earlier Saturday that government troops had routed the rebels who swarmed into eastern Chad from Sudan on Monday in hundreds of trucks.

"It is a decisive victory," said Younousmi. "They will take two or three years to rebuild."

"There were many fugitives, and about 60 (vehicles) scattered in the bush. We are continuing our mopping-up operations as far as the (Sudanese) border. With the deployment in place, few can escape."

The Chadian government says 225 rebels and 22 soldiers were killed in two days of clashes on Thursday and Friday south of the main eastern city of Abeche.

South of Abeche, in the town of Am-Dam, government forces showed off their booty and prisoners to journalists, who also saw dozens of bodies and burned-out vehicles.

A source from the rebel Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) claimed their forces were still massed southeast of Abeche and intent on taking the capital, some 600 kilometres (400 miles) away to the west.

News of the rebel reverse was greeted with a mixed response. Some expressed relief while others feared it would only be a matter of time before they returned en masse.

"Thank God! Since I learned that we have crushed the rebels in the east, I am sleeping better," barber Mariam Foullah said in Dembe, north of Abeche.

Others were less confident.

"The rebels are capable of surprise at any moment.... The government forces must monitor everywhere, not only in the east," said Adeline Mendji, a Ndjamena resident.

In Am-Dam, reporters flown from the capital on Friday were shown between 100 and 150 prisoners, along with weapons, including rocket-launchers bearing Chinese characters, and vehicles.

Taken to an army post some five kilometres from Am-Dam, an AFP photographer counted some 50 bodies, while burned out armoured vehicles testified to the fierceness of the fighting.

The fighting has heightened concerns among UN agencies and aid groups caring for about 450,000 refugees from Sudan and the Central African Republic.

A UN Security Council meeting in New York on Friday unanimously condemned the rebel offensive, which came shortly after Ndjamena and Khartoum signed the latest in a series of peace accords, none of which has had any lasting effect.

The European Union and African Union had issued earlier condemnations, but Deby said his confidence in the AU bloc was running out and urged it to hold Sudan to account for backing the rebels.

He said Chad would now give overt backing to the International Criminal Court which has issued an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

Deby was first elected president in a vote in 1996, re-elected in 2001 and stood for a third term in 2006, when the opposition boycotted the poll.

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