ABECHE, Chad (Reuters) - Chad’s army said it had killed hundreds of rebel fighters during fierce gun battles near the border with Sudan’s Darfur region on Monday after two rebel groups ended a month-long ceasefire at the weekend.
Government forces attacked a column of rebels at Abou Goulem, some 60 kilometres from the Darfur border, as they advanced towards the larger Chadian town of Abeche early on Monday, the army said in a statement on national television.
European Union peacekeepers are due to start deploying to the area in the coming weeks to protect humanitarian operations, largely based in Abeche, for around 400,000 Sudanese and Chadian refugees forced from their homes by years of violence.
“The security and defence forces carried out a total and definitive annihilation of this column. The search (for rebels) continued until nightfall,” the statement said.
“The partial toll is around 50 (rebel) vehicles seized, around 40 vehicles destroyed, several hundred dead (on the rebel side) and several prisoners of war.”
There was no immediate independent confirmation of the toll and the army gave no details of casualties among its own forces.
The hangar of a French military air base in Abeche, which is the hub of a massive international aid effort to help refugees, had been turned into a floodlit emergency triage centre for wounded Chadian soldiers, a Reuters witness in the town said.
Mahamat Nouri, leader of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD), one of Chad’s two main rebel groups, said his fighters had come under attack at around 0830 GMT.
“We had information that they would attack us, so we were prepared,” he told Reuters by satellite phone earlier on Monday as fighting continued near the small towns of Forchana and Hadjer Hadid, some 70 km (44 miles) east of Abeche.
The UFDD and a second rebel group, the Assembly of Forces for Change (RFC), said on Friday they would break a ceasefire as of Sunday, a month after four insurgent groups signed a peace deal with President Idriss Deby’s government.
UFDD rebels briefly entered Hadjer Hadid from Sudan on Saturday, attacking Chadian gendarmes protecting refugee camps, the army statement said.
Chadian and French helicopters took off in pursuit after Saturday’s shooting but failed to track down the rebels, who were in as many as a hundred vehicles, military sources said.
Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor held Sudan responsible, saying Khartoum’s forces had failed in their obligation to prevent rebel raids across the border.
Chad and Sudan have frequently accused each other of sheltering and supporting armed rebel factions, particularly during the past two years of armed rebellion in Chad’s east against Deby’s 17-year rule.
The European Union plans to send 3,700 troops to eastern Chad and a northeastern part of neighbouring Central African Republic to protect humanitarian operations and complement a joint U.N.-African peacekeeping force planned for Darfur.
The troops, around half from France which already has troops stationed in its former colony Chad, are due to start deploying in the coming weeks, led by an Irish contingent of 400 soldiers.
But force commander Lieutenant-General Patrick Nash warned EU members last week the mission could not go ahead without more helicopters and medical facilities, diplomats in Brussels said.
Additional reporting by Dany Danzoumbe in N'Djamena; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Alistair Thomson, Editing by Richard Williams