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Chad capital on edge fearing more rebel attacks

Written by: Staff
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N'DJAMENA, Apr 15 (Reuters) Thousands of supporters of Chad's President Idriss Deby rallied victoriously in the sun-baked capital N'Djamena today but many nervous residents feared rebels fighting to topple him may return.

Insurgents bent on ending Deby's near 16-year rule over one of the world's poorest countries launched their most daring strike yet on Thursday, slipping into the dusty city at dawn before loyalist forces fought them off.

Chad, which says the fighting killed more than 300 people, has accused Sudan of backing the rebels and cut diplomatic ties with Khartoum yesterday, shutting its borders and threatening to stop sheltering refugees from Sudan's Darfur region.

Sudan has denied helping anti-Deby rebels.

Chad has also threatened to cut off oil production unless it is given access to revenues frozen in January by the World Bank in a spat over how petro-dollars are spent. Deby has said Chad needed the money to help bolster national security.

Chad's oil minister said output would halt on Tuesday unless the Exxon Mobil -led consortium operating in the country paid at least 0 million to circumvent the freeze. Exxon Mobil said it was talking to the government about the demand.

Minibuses and mopeds ferried Deby supporters, some of them draped in Chadian flags and dancing to music on vehicle roofs, to a rally in the centre of town where the leader was due to speak. But many residents feared the jubilation was premature.

''There is no information. As there is no information we're afraid,'' said Adoum Dago, who sells mobile phone cards from a shack, clutching a radio nervously to his ear.

''We're afraid the rebels will come back,'' he said.

The government paraded what it said were 160 captured rebels and 14 vehicles at a rally in N'Djamena on Friday but nerves are still on edge, with hospitals overflowing with wounded civilians and buildings in the centre of town pockmarked from the attack.

''There have been quite a lot of amputations. The wounds are principally from bullets,'' said Duccio Staderini, head of the Medecins Sans Frontieres-Belgium aid mission in N'Djamena, which is treating 110 wounded civilians in two hospitals.

Casualties in blood-soaked bandages lay in field tents outside a main hospital. Soldiers in pick-up trucks wearing camouflage and desert scarves patrolled the streets outside.

The charred wreckage of a government jeep stood near the twisted gates of the National Assembly building, which bore the brunt of the rebel attack. Residents said three soldiers burned to death in the vehicle. Bullet marks peppered the ground.

''WHERE'S THE PALACE?'' Confusion over where the rebels were and what they planned to do next did little to calm nerves. A government declaration of victory was met by statements from the rebels that their withdrawal from the city had been tactical.

''People are getting back to normal life. But they are worried. There is a war of words. The rebels are still getting their message across,'' said Begoto Oulatar, editor of weekly newspaper N'Djamena Hebdo.

''Experience tells us the rebels are going to come back ...

but there are several groups of rebels. We don't even know if they have a strategy,'' he said.

Local newspapers said the rebels had had to ask directions to the presidential palace when they arrived in the city.

Former colonial power France, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the African Union have strongly condemned any attempt to overthrow Deby by force. The United States urged Chad, Sudan and other African countries to try to halt the violence.

Deby has criticised the international community for being slow to react to the border crisis with Sudan, a spillover from the Darfur conflict in which pro-Khartoum Arab militias battle other ethnic groups.

''Chad has regularly alerted international opinion on the Machiavellian plan of the government in Khartoum,'' Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-Mi told foreign diplomats on Saturday.

''We regret to confirm that the international community has closed its eyes to the unfriendly behaviour of Khartoum and has until now hesitated in condemning and taking sanctions against Sudan,'' he said.

REUTERS CH VC2211

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