Monday, November 27, 2006
Over the weekend, Chadian rebels who have their rear bases in Darfur briefly held Abeche, a hub for aid workers helping Darfur refugees. A French military officer posted in the town said it remained under threat. Gunfire could be heard in the distance after nightfall, and residents said it was rebels fighting government troops north of town, but there was no confirmation of that.
Earlier Monday, the U.N. said looters plundered around US$1.5 million (€1 million) worth of aid intended for refugees after the rebel attack. Governor Mahamat Nimir Hamata, whose Ouaddai province has Abeche as its capital, said a courthouse, an office of the national bank, a cigarette factory, the repair shop where the U.N. keeps spare parts and the state archives also were looted by residents.
Both Hamata's office and his nearby official residence were struck, stripped of doors, windows and plumbing. He spoke Monday amid piles of paper strewn around his office. The night before, he had declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew and, in a radio address, pleaded with people to return stolen property.
"It's really sad," said Hamata, who seemed particularly troubled by the attack on the state archives. "I don't understand the state of mind of the people. How can you destroy our archives?"
The rebels themselves were described as disciplined. It was not clear what prompted civilians to loot, targeting many government buildings, but President Idriss Deby, who first took power at the head of his own rebel army in 1990, is considered unpopular in this area.
Chadian rebels have clashed sporadically with the government since 2005 and launched a failed attack on the capital in April. The competition for power has become more intense since Chad began exporting oil in 2004. The rebels have been able to exploit volatility in neighboring Sudan, establishing rear bases in Sudan's troubled Darfur region, which borders eastern Chad.
Rebels seized Abeche Saturday and government forces recaptured it Sunday.
French troops, who have a base in the area 885 kilometers (550 miles) east of the capital, N'djamena, deployed to protect Abeche's airport and some 150 foreigners seeking refugee in an aircraft hanger there. "We are in a state of war," French officer Didier Lebailly told reporters and aid workers who arrived on the first flight into Abeche since rebels briefly held the town.
He said Abeche still is under threat "from all sides." French troops in jeeps mounted with machine guns patrolled the perimeter of the airport.
In Paris, French foreign ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told reporters Monday: "These new rebel attacks show again the gravity of the situation and the urgency for an international presence to be deployed along the border between Chad and Darfur," he said.
According to initial reports from staff, nearly 500 metric tons (more than 500 tons)of food worth US$500,000 (€380,000) were taken from a WFP warehouse in the center of Abeche. Also stolen was around US$1 million (€760,000) worth of blankets, tents, stoves, medical, communications and water purification supplies and other equipment.
"Stealing food from people who have lost everything is the most shameful and inhumane act that anyone can possibly commit," WFP Executive Director James Morris said in a statement.
U.N. and other agencies based in Abeche deliver aid to 218,000 Darfur refugees and some 90,000 internally displaced Chadians.
In the capital, heavily armed Chadian soldiers reinforced their positions Monday, although the government insisted that their forces were pursuing the rebels in the east back toward the Sudanese border. Troops were positioned throughout the capital, cordoning off key government buildings and supported by at least a dozen tanks guarding the main entrances to the city. Schools have been closed and residents of N'djamena have been panic buying.
At dawn a French Mirage fighter jet conducted low-level reconnaissance flights over the capital and surrounding areas.
Both France and Britain have issued warnings of reports of rebel forces heading toward the capital, urging against all travel to Chad. The Chadian government has denied rebels were 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) from the capital and said they were no longer advancing.
Besides the rebellion, Chad's government has in recent weeks reporting violence pitting ethnic Arab Chadians against ethnic African Chadians, mirroring ethnic clashes in Darfur. Chad accused Sudan of instigating the clashes. Chad often accuses Sudan of supporting Chadian rebels and Sudan makes a similar accusation against Chad.
In Darfur, ethnic African tribes accusing the central government of neglect launched a rebellion three years ago, following years of low-level tribal clashes over land and water. The government is accused of responding by unleashing ethnic Arab tribal militias who have been linked to atrocities.
More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced since fighting began in Darfur in early 2003.
Chad, an impoverished country in central Africa, has suffered from years of political turmoil that have hampered economic development. The economy relies on livestock and a relatively new oil industry.
Re-posted from the International Herald Tribune in case this article is no longer able to be accessed by my link at Causes of Interest.