Page last updated at 18:29 GMT, Monday, 3 December 2007

Back to the battlefield in Chad

By Stephanie Hancock
BBC News, N'Djamena

Chad government troops
The Chadian army is said to have low morale

In the space of barely a week the fragile peace deal in Chad has unravelled, throwing the country back into a struggle between government forces and insurrectionists.

But do the rebels stand any chance of succeeding in their mission to overthrow President Idriss Deby, the man they call a "tyrant"?

The biggest rebel group is the United Force for Democracy and Development (UFDD), led by ageing former diplomat Mahamat Nouri, who defected from the government 16 months ago.

His men are well-equipped and willing to fight.

Another rebel group is the Rally of Forces for Change (RFC), headed by President Deby's own uncle, Timan Erdimi, who used to run the country's cotton industry.

Like the president he is from the Zagawa clan, which though a minority group in terms of numbers, supplies Chad's political elite.

French factor

The Chadian army is said to have low morale, its soldiers notoriously reluctant to fight - but while the rebels may be the more willing combatants, they are no match for President Deby's air power.

Chadian soldier with captured rebel jeep
Hundreds of fierce battles but no outright victory in Chad

His recently acquired attack helicopters have conducted several air raids on rebel positions in the past week.

The rebels accuse the French army of feeding strategic information to the Chadian army thanks to the their Mirage jets which regularly over fly the rebel border hide-outs.

France, which has more than 1,000 troops stationed in Chad, says it keeps a check on rebel movements in order to protect its citizens in N'Djamena from possible attack.

The UFDD say they consider the French army an enemy and have gone on to issue a statement declaring a state of war against all foreign troops on Chadian soil.

We've been told they are dead, but they are not bringing the bodies back to us
Night watchman in N'Djamena

Analysts say this is probably little more than political rhetoric and doubt the rebels would really dare to attack.

But Europe may well be alarmed by such statements just weeks before more than 4,000 European troops are due to start deploying in eastern Chad.

Their mission, set to begin in January 2008, is to protect humanitarian aid workers and the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes along Chad's border with the Sudanese region of Darfur.

A senior military observer said that the deployment dates may slip but, in spite of the threats, it will go ahead as it would be too humiliating for Europe to back down now - especially given the difficulty of getting UN peacekeepers into Darfur.

Sudan link

Some speculate that Sudan - which is known to be arming and equipping the Chadian rebels - may have been behind the recent threat against foreign troops.

Map showing Chad and Sudan

They suggest that Khartoum is as reluctant to see the EU deployment in Chad as it is to see UN troops in Darfur.

The two conflicts are intimately linked - while Sudan is accused of supporting the Chadian rebels, Chad is equally accused of backing some of the Darfuri rebel groups.

Put bluntly, while war is being waged in Chad there is little prospect of peace in Darfur.

Given that they have already had to endure 40 years of conflict, Chadians have an air of weary inevitability about the current instability, saying they expect the insecurity to worsen and are convinced that the fighting will continue for years to come.

After all, there has never been a peaceful regime change in Chad.

Chadian soldiers rely on villagers to give them a decent burial
Chadians have endured about 40 years of conflict

Amid the propaganda and rhetoric, it is easy to forget the human cost of this war.

Khamis, a elderly night watchman in N'Djamena, lost three members of his village in the fighting last week, including his nephew.

I asked if he was busy with funerals.

"No," he replied. "We've been told they are dead, but they are not bringing the bodies back to us."

Many of those killed in the fighting have been buried where they fell on the battlefields, eased into shallow, unmarked graves by local villagers, who took it upon themselves to give the dead some dignity.

As the president and rebel leaders continue in their bitter struggle for power, it is ordinary Chadians who are being asked to pay the ultimate price.

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