Chad's president threatens to eject 200,000 refugees

Saturday, April 15, 2006

An area minister who recently visited nearby Sudan said a forced return would set the stage for a catastrophe.

Chad's president broke off relations with neighboring Sudan, threatened to expel 200,000 refugees from Darfur and paraded more than 250 captured rebels through the streets of the capital N'Djamena on Friday after a violent attempt to overthrow him.

The refugees could become casualties in a growing war of accusations between the governments of Chad and Sudan. If forced to return to their homes in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, they would find almost no food or shelter and be instantly preyed upon by militias that roam the land with impunity.

"The international community has been totally deaf and dumb on the situation between Sudan and Chad," President Idriss Deby said after an emergency Cabinet meeting. They "need to understand the situation and that enough is enough."

A forced return, for whatever reason, would set the stage for a political and humanitarian catastrophe, said the Rev. Bob Towner, pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Cape Girardeau. Towner recently returned from a missionary visit to southern Sudan with four other Missourians.

The refugees in Chad have fled ethnic and sectarian violence in Sudan that has resulted in thousands of deaths. Armed militias accused of working to implement policies of the ruling Muslim government are blamed for the deaths.

"They would rather go home, but they don't want to go home to be slaughtered," Towner said.

And a chronic lack of food in the arid region is getting worse, Towner said. His congregation is making a special collection during services leading up to the Easter celebration to provide help, he said.

"There isn't an international force there to protect or feed them" if the refugees are forced to return, Towner said.

An attack by the rebel United Force for Change on N'djamena, the capital of this central African country, set off the latest crisis. At least 350 people -- troops, rebels and civilians -- died in the failed assault Thursday, Cabinet minister Gen. Mahamet Ali Abdullah said.

He said 271 rebels were captured, and dozens of them were paraded through the Place d'Independence Friday in a show of victory. Many were called upon to tell the crowds how they were either Sudanese conscripted by the rebels, or Chadians captured by Sudanese and forced to join the rebels.

The carefully choreographed demonstration was designed to support Deby's assertion that the rebels were just mercenaries hired by the Sudanese government to overthrow him. Most of the prisoners appeared to be under 25 years old.

In a press statement read on Sudan's state-run radio Friday, the ministry of foreign affairs said the Sudanese government was a good neighbor and had never interfered with Chad's internal politics. The ministry called on the warring sides to resolve their problems through peaceful means.

But the Central African Republic said Friday it was closing its border with Sudan after the Chadian rebels drove in pickup trucks from Sudan through the northern part off that country on their way to attack N'djamena. The 600-mile journey took them three days.

"We were shocked to hear that rebel groups coming from Sudan have crossed the CAR to go and attack a friendly country," Foreign Minister Jean Paul Ngoupande told The Associated Press. "The closing of our border is our way to express our dissatisfaction with Sudanese aggression."

The rebels, in a statement released on a Web site, again condemned Deby's refusal to negotiate with them. A key issue has been Deby's decision to change the constitution so he can run for a third term as president in elections set for May 3.

"The regime of Idriss Deby is the basis of the crisis in this part of the African continent," the rebel statement said.

The U.N. Security Council and the African Union Peace and Security Council both condemned the rebel attack on N'djamena. The U.N. called for both Chad and Sudan to take all necessary steps to prevent any more violence or an escalation of tensions between the two countries.

Chad, an arid, landlocked country about three times the size of California, has been wracked by violence for most of its history. It has endured more than 30 years of civil war since gaining independence from France in 1960 and various small-scale insurgencies since 1998.

The crisis in Darfur and internal dissension over how to spend new oil revenues have weakened Deby, who has led Chad since seizing power in a coup in 1990.

Two million people have been driven from their homes in Darfur, the site of what the United Nations has called the world's gravest humanitarian crisis. More than 200,000 of those refugees now live across the border in Chad.

Deby said Friday they would have to leave by June 30 if the international community does not do something to stop Sudan from further destabilizing his country. He suggested he would insist that the U.N. refugee agency move the refugees to a third country, but such a move would be logistically very difficult.

Sudan has accused Chad of supporting rebels in Darfur, where Arab militias backed by the government have fought black African rebels for nearly three years. Some 180,000 people have died in Darfur as a result -- some at the hands of Arab militias, many from disease and hunger.

Although observers believe Sudan has provided at least some support to the Chadian rebels as revenge, the insurgents are led by former top military officers who until recently served under Deby. There has been enormous dissent within Deby's clan over his decision to run for a third term and how royalties from recently exploited oil reserves have disappeared.

Army officers first attempted to oust Deby on March 14 by trying to seize power while he out of the country. Thursday's attack was defeated when government loyalists used tanks, artillery and attack helicopters to destroy the lightly armed rebel column.

Abdullah said the army captured 14 pickups used by the rebels, some mounted with anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft guns and missile launchers.

Many of the prisoners paraded Friday claimed to be Sudanese conscripted into the rebel United Force for Change. One said he was an adjutant in the Sudanese army, while another was recognized by loyalist troops as a former Chadian soldier.

Some said they had been assured that there would be no fight for N'djamena once they entered the city.

Staff writer Rudi Keller contributed to this report.

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