Chadian troops clashed on Thursday with rebels from neighboring Sudan, each side claiming victory in a first direct confrontation that left aid agencies and traders fearing the worst.
In a statement broadcast on national radio, the army claimed 125 rebels and 21 soldiers were killed, 30 government troops wounded and 152 rebels taken prisoner. Several vehicles were also destroyed or captured.
“The first ground clashes have just taken place at Am-Deressa, 10km south of Am-Dam” in eastern Chad, Chadian Communications Minister Mahamat Hissene said.
“The government forces gained the upper hand and mopping up operations are continuing,” Hissene said.
Interim defense minister Adoum Younousmi spoke earlier in the day of “heavy” casualties from “fierce” combat.
Rebel alliance spokesman Adberaman Koulamallah said that fighting began at 5am, “was very violent” and “lasted for hours.”
He said that the battle “turned in our favor. Government forces are completely routed. We occupy Am-Dam. The objective is still [the capital] Ndjamena.”
Am-Dam is 110km north of Goz Beida and more than 100km south of Abeche, the two towns used as bases by most relief agencies working in eastern Chad to help 450,000 refugees and displaced people.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Thursday said it had pulled all but two of 20 staff out of camps for 60,000 people because of the instability by the insurgency since it began on Monday.
The UN World Food Programme took a similar decision in the same region on Wednesday.
“All the other humanitarian agencies are going to do the same” because the situation is “too volatile and too unstable,” said Serge Male, representing the High Commissioner for Refugees in Chad.
Chad has accused Sudan of backing the rebel assault, which began with the ink barely dry on a Sunday peace pact between the fractious neighbors brokered in Doha by Qatar and Libya.
Koulamallah said on Thursday that the rebels advancing across the hot, arid south of the central African country had “more than a thousand” four-by-four vehicles, but said they had been attacked each day by helicopters and high-flying bombers.
The government has so far stated that it carried out one air attack.
The military activity — which echoes a push in February last year when rebels battled their way to the gates of the presidential palace before being beaten back — has also raised fears among Ndjamena traders.
“Memories of what happened in February 2008 come back into my head,” said Elise Mariam, a fish seller in Ndjamena, one of thousands who fled the city then. “Since I heard that war is back, I’ve been really frightened.”
“I abandoned everything and lost it all. I don’t want to live through that again ... The international community should act fast,” he said.
“We sow injustice and we harvest war,” said civil servant Hassan Kuerge. “The international community should put pressure on Deby and his brothers [the political and armed opposition] to have them make peace.”
Chadian Interior and Public Security Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bashir has accused Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of ordering “mercenaries” to attack Chad and vowed that the rebels would be wiped out.
Peace between Chad and Sudan is regarded as essential to any lasting settlement to a six-year-old uprising in Sudan’s western Darfur region.