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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 18:13 GMT
Chad scorched by days of battles
By Stephanie Hancock
BBC News, eastern Chad

Chadian soldiers patrol the battlefield
Government forces have clashed with two rebel groups

Flying over the rugged terrain of far eastern Chad by helicopter, columns of smoke can be seen rising up off the valley floor.

The landscape is on fire: blackened by flames that started as vehicles and ammunition exploded.

By the time we land, fighting has already finished, but the remains of the battle are clear to see.

As well as the scorched earth, a nearby "wadi" - or dried out riverbed - is littered with burnt out Toyota pick-ups and a handful of badly burned corpses.

Heavy fighting

They are so badly disfigured it is impossible to tell if they are rebels or government soldiers, but the head of Chad's army has no doubts.

"This was the rebels' base," General Abdelkarim Bahar Mahamat Itno, told reporters. "About 20 of them were killed here."

The army is keen to claim victory following several days of violent clashes in the east, but fighting has been so intense it is difficult to tell who is winning.

Tellingly, journalists are not taken further north, to an area called Kapka Massive, where a lengthy, 10-hour battle was waged earlier this week.

The head of Chadian Army, General Abdelkarim Bahar Mahamat Itno
General Itno was wounded in fighting

General Itno assured us the rebels have been pushed back across the border into Sudan, but the constant drone of Chadian and French helicopters patrolling overhead shows that the army fears otherwise.

"That's the Chadian army, they are searching with the French for rebels," said a soldier, as French mirage jets hummed overhead.

"The rebels have gone into Sudan, but it's possible they are hiding in the mountains - we just don't know."

General Itno - who himself is sporting an injury from the battlefield - admitted it is possible that fighting will continue, but his men appeared exhausted.

"The combat started last Monday - it's now the 11th day," said a soldier. "The combat was very hard and we are very tired.

"It's many days since we've eaten, and we have not had the chance to rest. There are problems with food, and with water - there is not enough - so it's very difficult."

'Family affair'

Both the rebels and the government have given conflicting accounts of the latest combat, which involved fighters from the Rally of Forces for Change (RFC) movement.

The way they wage war here, I wouldn't be surprised if they had at least two thirds as many dead, as they do wounded
Aid worker

General Itno told journalists that at least 70 rebels had been killed in two days of fighting.

The RFC, on the other hand, claims to have won a substantial victory, and says it took more than 200 government soldiers prisoner.

The situation is extremely complicated, with several rebel groups active in the area, mostly complaining that President Deby favours his own Zaghawa group.

But RFC leader Timan Erdimi is President Deby's uncle.

Meanwhile, the man in charge of Chad's Army, General Itno, is Mr Deby's cousin.

It's a truly "family affair", and as one observer remarked, would almost be comical if it were not for the bloodshed involved.

Accurate casualty figures are hard to obtain, but a senior humanitarian worker said hundreds have been killed and wounded since fighting restarted late last month, including battles with another rebel group, the United Force for Democracy and Development (UFDD).

Casualties

"Between 350 to 400 government soldiers have been injured since hostilities began," said the aid worker.

A woman villager in eastern Chad
Battles have left the land scorched

"The way they wage war here, I wouldn't be surprised if they had at least two thirds as many dead, as they do wounded.

"It's sheer guesswork but looking at previous battles such as in N'Djamena, this is about the percentage we saw."

Rebel casualty figures are much smaller than for the army, but this could be because they find it harder to transport their men to hospitals, and are forced to treat their injured in the bush.

Empty syringe packets and makeshift bandages are dotted all around the terrain.

Around the battlefield, women villagers can be seen gingerly picking their way around the debris.

They help the soldiers gather together unexploded munitions that are then destroyed by soldiers, who cheer as their rocket-propelled grenades cause explosions that send fresh plumes of acrid smoke into the air.

Eventually the bodies will be buried and the grass will grow back, but by the time this happens, the war will have already moved on.



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