DAKAR, June 18 (Reuters) - A hit-and-run offensive by rebels in Chad has tested the strength and neutrality of a European Union military force deployed to protect refugees in the east of the African state that borders Sudan’s Darfur region.
The mobile rebel columns of armed pickups have raced through towns and struck at army posts in the eastern borderlands. But they have not attempted to repeat the headlong charge westwards to the capital N‘Djamena that they made in February.
Analysts see a possible shift in tactics by the insurgents, who have fought for more than two years to try to topple President Idriss Deby. Himself a former rebel, Deby says they are “mercenaries” fighting on behalf of neighbouring Sudan.
The anti-Deby rebel National Alliance briefly occupied at least four small towns over the last week in raids which again stoked tensions between Chad and Sudan. Their long common frontier runs along Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region and they both accuse each other of supporting armed groups.
But unlike their February assault on N‘Djamena, which failed to overthrow Deby, the rebel columns this time harried the Chadian army in the east in an apparent war of attrition.
“The rebels are staging a show of strength and seeking to underline President Deby’s weakness and inability to control the whole Chadian territory,” Bjoern Seibert, an analyst at Boston’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said.
The rebels accompanied their offensive with announcements of combat successes by spokesmen based in France and Sudan who called foreign media organisations with satellite phones.
“It’s a war of Thurayas (satphones), not Kalashnikovs,” said Chadian Information Minister Mahamat Hissene. He said the start of the rainy season also hampered the rebel advance.
The rebel push was the first to occur with a European Union military force (EUFOR) in position in eastern Chad on a mission to protect nearly half a million Sudanese and Chadian refugees and foreign aid workers caring for them.
“One could speculate that the rebels were attempting to test EUFOR’s reaction to their offensive,” said Seibert, who has written a study on the EU military deployment in Chad.
Even before the EUFOR troops arrived in Chad earlier this year, some of the rebels had warned them that if they tried to come between them and Deby’s forces, they could face attack.
EUFOR had insisted the force would stay neutral.
This neutrality was put to the test on Saturday, when a rebel column attacked Goz-Beida, an eastern town surrounded by U.N.-run camps housing tens of thousands of Sudanese and Chadian refugees protected by a battalion of Irish EUFOR troops.
During fighting between the rebels and government troops, Irish soldiers briefly came under fire and returned fire.
EUFOR troops did not engage the rebels, whose own spokesmen said they were not seeking a fight with the Europeans.
“Our opinion today is that there is no direct threat to the EUFOR forces,” Lt.-Col. Philippe de Cussac, EUFOR’s command headquarters spokesman in Paris, told Reuters.
But the rebel attacks in the east forced the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR to suspend activities in its 12 east Chad camps.
This raised the question of whether the small and thinly stretched EU force, which is approaching but not yet at full strength of 3,700, can fulfil its mandated role of guaranteeing international humanitarian operations in east Chad.
“Even when fully operational, EUFOR will most likely be unable to secure such a large and challenging area of operations ... the size of Germany,” Seibert said.
While EUFOR’s demonstration of neutrality was welcomed by the rebels, it provoked a furious outburst this week from Chadian President Deby who accused the European force of standing by and “closing its eyes” while the insurgents killed civilians and stole vehicles, food and fuel from aid workers.
Seibert said Deby was sending a message to Europe that he expected its support against rebel attacks he sees as a proxy war waged against him by eastern neighbour Sudan.
Former colonial ruler France, which in February clearly threw its political and military weight behind Deby when he resisted the rebel assault on N‘Djamena, has taken a more ambiguous position towards the latest rebel moves.
While expressing support for Deby, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said his country would "not intervene militarily". France provides more than half of the EUFOR force and has its own warplanes and troops stationed in Chad. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/) (Editing by Alistair Thomson)