KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan and Chad traded threats and accusations on Tuesday over cross-border attacks, cranking up tensions on their already violence-torn common frontier.
The Sudanese government promised a firm response, including possible military action, to what it said was a Chadian army attack on Monday that killed 17 of its soldiers.
While Chad denied any deliberate assault on its eastern neighbour, it acknowledged its forces had clashed with Sudanese troops after crossing the border to pursue Sudanese-backed rebels it said were launching raids.
The incident marked a sharp flare-up of tension between the two oil-producing central African neighbours, whose ties have been increasingly marred by violence spilling over from the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Sudan summoned the Chadian ambassador over the incident.
A Sudanese army spokesman, who asked not to be named, promised a “strong” response. “We will consider all responses, political, diplomatic and military,” he said.
Chad’s government warned Sudan against taking military action. “If Sudan opts for direct aggression, Chad will use all means to respond,” Chad’s Communication Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor told a news conference in N’Djamena.
Reversing an earlier denial, Doumgor said the Chadian army had used its “right of pursuit” to chase the rebels into Sudan, where he said Sudanese troops were protecting them.
Without acknowledging Sudanese military deaths, he said Chad regretted “civilian victims” had been killed in the fighting.
As the confrontation worsened, the United Nations said up to 400 people had been killed in Chad in cross-border attacks by Sudanese Janjaweed militia 10 days ago and one U.N. official who visited the remote area described scenes as “apocalyptic”.
Decomposing corpses, hundreds of burnt out houses and animal carcasses were left behind. Many who survived the initial raids died from exhaustion and dehydration, often while fleeing, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Sudan’s foreign minister, Lam Akol, said those reports were “the usual way of some people trying to detract attention from any positive progress” in Darfur.
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte spoke by telephone, intensifying diplomatic efforts over Darfur.
Akol said the remaining obstacle to a deal to bolster an African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur had been overcome.
Speaking after South African President Thabo Mbeki held talks on Darfur with his Sudanese counterpart Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Akol said the issue of whether helicopter gunships should be used was no longer an issue.
The four-year war in Darfur, which has killed an estimated 200,000 people, has driven several hundred thousand refugees into Chad and prompted the United Nations to study a peacekeeping force for the country’s lawless east.
N’Djamena accuses Sudan of supporting Chadian rebels based in Darfur, while Sudanese Arab militia, known as Janjaweed, are raiding ever further into eastern Chad.
Underscoring the vulnerability of the ill-equipped African forces, a statement from the African Union mission in Sudan said gunmen attacked an African Union peacekeeper patrol in the Darfur region of western Sudan, killing one and injuring two.
Five African Union peacekeepers were killed near Sudan’s border with Chad on April 1 after they were attacked by gunmen.
In the latest border clash, Chad said a large rebel force was defeated after crossing from Sudan on Monday in an attempt to destabilise its government.
It is just two months since Chadian President Idriss Deby and Bashir signed a non-aggression pact in the Libyan capital Tripoli to try to calm rising regional tensions.
Sudan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ali al-Sadig, accused Chad of violating the agreement. “We want peaceful relations but our army will remain vigilant to prevent such actions. Chad is clearly escalating problems,” he said.
The UNHCR refugee agency said last week Chadian authorities reported at least 65 dead in March 31 attacks on two villages in eastern Chad where about 8,000 people lived. The estimate of up to 400 dead followed a visit by U.N. agencies on Sunday.
Negroponte is expected to visit Sudan and give a tough message from Washington, which has threatened new measures in an effort to break Sudanese resistance to sending international troops to back African forces.
Reporting by Michael Georgy in Khartoum, Betel Miarom in N'Djamena, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Emma Graham-Harrison and Guo Shipeng in Beijing