Civilians flee Chad capital as rebels regroup

( dpa ) - Following two days of intense fighting between rebel groups and forces loyal to Chadian President Idriss Deby, thousands of residents have fled the capital N'Djamena, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said Monday.

At the same time, RFI radio reported that rebel leaders said that they had withdrawn from the centre of the city to give civilians a chance to flee before a possibly decisive battle.

But according to a statement by the Chadian military, the rebels were driven out of N'Djamena on Sunday by a counteroffensive led by tanks and attack helicopters.

Aid groups said that hundreds of civilians had been injured in the two days of fighting near the presidential palace in N'Djamena. Witnesses said that corpses littered the streets of the capital, but there has been no official confirmation of casualties.

Most of the civilians took refuge in neighbouring Cameroon, where they told RFI that they had been roused in the middle of the night by rebel soldiers and ordered to leave the city.

The French government said Monday that their planes had evacuated some 600 foreign nationals from N'Djamena to Libreville in Gabon since the fighting began.

At the same time, fighting broke out in the east of the country at Adre. Chadian officials said that rebels there were supported by Sudanese helicopters, which the government in Khartoum immediately denied.

French Defence Minister Herve Morin told RTL radio on Monday that France would not intervene militarily in the fighting without a legal mandate.

Two years ago, French fighter jets had attacked rebel columns as they marched on N'Djamena.

Morin said that France had an military cooperation agreement with its former colony, but not one that obliged it to come to the country's defence.

"This agreement of military cooperation does not in any way oblige French military forces to intervene," Morin said.

In an interview published Monday in the daily Le Figaro, Morin said that France could intervene "within the framework of a UN mandate to protect Chad's integrity and lawful government."

Meanwhile the South African diplomatic mission in Chad was finalising Monday arrangements for the evacuation of fifteen South Africans from the country, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.

Spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said the department was aware of 15 South Africans working in Chad. The department was in contact with French authorities who had agreed to assist with the evacuation.

" South Africa joins the international community in expressing its concern regarding the deteriorating political situation in Chad," Mamoepa said.

"In this regard we call on all parties to co-operate with the African Union-led mediation effort aimed at finding a lasting political solution in Chad."

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