NDJAMENA (AFP) – Rebels in Chad headed Monday for rear bases behind the Sudanese border, Chadian officials said, but a rebel spokesman warned they could launch a new offensive.
“They’ve gone back towards Sudan. They couldn’t regroup where they were. We destroyed most of their structure” during fighting late last week, a Chadian official said Monday.
The signs of retreat could be seen as President Idriss Deby Itno, in full combat gear, flew in Monday to eastern Chad to order his troops to chase away the routed rebels, national television reported.
Deby made a lightning visit to Goz Beida, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the frontier, to order his soldiers to “comb the area and track down those wandering in the wilderness.”
Aid organisations were steadily returning to their normal activities and “some never even left the area,” one humanitarian official said.
A spokesman for the United Nations mission in the region said 120 UN troops had been detailed to protect aid workers helping tens of thousands of refugees and displaced people.
The Union of Forces for the Resistance (UFR), a coalition of rebel factions, launched an offensive on May 4 stating their goal was to take the capital Ndjamena, but Deby’s army counter-attacked and by Sunday was claiming victory.
The remaining rebels were gathering in the far southeast of the central African nation, which borders Sudan’s troubled Darfur province, indicating they planned to pull back to their Sudanese bases, several military sources said.
However, one foreign observer told AFP “we can’t totally rule out a new rebel attack. It isn’t impossible, mathematically speaking.
“If you compare (casualty) figures with the thousands of rebels claimed, some are left and it’s the same with the vehicles.”
Acting Chadian Defence Minister Adoum Younousmi said at the weekend that the rebels were finished, saying: “They will take two or three years to rebuild.”
The Chadian government says 226 rebels and 22 soldiers were killed in two days of clashes on Thursday and Friday south of the main eastern city of Abeche. It also claimed to have captured 212 prisoners, some of whom were shown Sunday on state television.
While the government said the rebels had between 300 and 400 pick-up trucks, the rebels claimed to have at least double the number. Each one can transport between 10 and 15 men, with arms, ammunition and jerry-cans of fuel.
“We haven’t given up. It’s not over,” a UFR source reached by satellite phone said Monday. “There have been no clashes. The situation is calm.”
Sudan’s Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein warned that Khartoum’s army was “ready to drive back any aggression on Sudanese territory,” meaning the Sudanese rebels in Darfur, but also Chadian forces should they pursue the rebels across the border.
Last week’s rebel attack was launched a day after the fractious neighbours, which each accuse the other of supporting rebel movements, signed a peace pact in Doha, with Libyan and Qatari mediation.
Deby, who seized power himself in 1990 after a similar rebellion launched from Sudan and was almost unseated in a rebel offensive last February before he fought it off with French help, threatened Saturday to break off relations with Khartoum.
“Teachers who are really intelligence agents ought to return home,” he said.
Deby exercised a right of pursuit in 2007, but several observers said he was unlikely this time to send troops into Sudan.
“He has obtained a unanimous international condemnation of the rebel attack,” said one. “An incursion into Sudan would lose him his position of (diplomatic) strength.”
All 15 ambassadors to the UN Security Council on Friday endorsed a non-binding, French-drafted statement that “condemns the renewed military incursions in eastern Chad of Chadian armed groups, coming from outside,” meaning Sudan.