(Recasts, updates with details, quotes, background)
By Stephanie Hancock
N‘DJAMENA, Feb 12 (Reuters) - The European Union resumed the deployment of a peacekeeping force to Chad on Tuesday after suspending it during a rebel assault on the capital of the central African state.
The EUFOR deployment, which has a mission to protect refugees, civilians and aid workers in conflict-hit eastern Chad, restarted despite warnings from Chadian rebels that they would consider it a hostile force.
The rebels, who accused France of helping Chadian President Idriss Deby repel their attack on the capital N‘Djamena this month, say the predominance of French troops in the EU force means it cannot be neutral in Chad’s civil war.
EUFOR said a military transport plane arrived on Tuesday in the eastern Chadian town of Abeche, marking the effective restart of the deployment operation, which will disperse 3,700 EU troops to east Chad and Central African Republic.
"This will be followed by further flights in the coming days to Abeche and N‘Djamena," the EU force said in a statement.
The EU mission, which has a United Nations mandate to protect over half a million refugees and civilians who have fled violence spilling over from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, should be operational by the end of March, its commanders say.
At the start of February, EU commanders temporarily suspended the planned deployment of the peacekeeping force after Chadian rebels fighting to topple Deby stormed into the capital N‘Djamena, provoking two days of heavy fighting in the streets. The rebels have since withdrawn from the capital.
Before the deployment resumed, the alliance of Chad’s anti-Deby rebel groups urged EU member states not to send troops. The rebels said the force’s declared neutrality would be compromised by the fact that former colonial power France was contributing more than half of the 3,700 EUFOR soldiers.
Rebel leaders say France used tanks and helicopters, part of a French military contingent based in Chad, to help Deby beat back their Feb. 2-3 assault on N‘Djamena. France denies its forces were directly involved in combat.
EU commanders insist that despite the heavy French component, the EU force will stay neutral in Chad’s conflict.
FRANCE SEEKS ANSWERS
Following the rebel attack on N‘Djamena, President Deby had called for the EU deployment to urgently restart.
The humanitarian crisis in east Chad, where the U.N. runs camps for Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadians, became more acute in recent days after Sudanese army and militia attacks in West Darfur drove thousands more refugees over the border.
Chad said it would absorb no more refugees and said it would expel the newcomers unless the international community relocated them in another country or sent them home.
After withdrawing from the capital a week ago following battles that killed at least 165 people and injured more than 800, the Chadian rebels moved back towards the Sudan border.
Chad accuses its eastern neighbour Sudan of arming and backing the anti-Deby rebels, a charge denied by Khartoum.
France on Tuesday called on Chad’s government to provide information about civilian opposition figures who were arrested during the dying hours of the rebel assault this month. Opposition members say they do not know where their colleagues are being held.
"We hope for a clarification of their situation," French foreign ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani told reporters.
"What is a clarification of their situation? It is precise information on the grounds of their imprisonment, on possibly the places they are located, and on the judicial process the Chadian authorities think are applicable to them," she added. (Additional reporting by Brian Rohan and Francois Murphy in Paris and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Keith Weir)