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Violence Continues to Roil in Chad

November 27, 2006

ABECHE, Chad (AP) _ With gunfire sounding in the distance, workers took stock Monday of looted U.N. warehouses and government offices in this town in eastern Chad, the latest victim of unrest that started in Sudan’s Darfur region and has spread across a swath of Africa.

Chadian rebels who have bases in Darfur seized this hub for humanitarian workers Saturday, and government forces retook it Sunday. Amid the upheaval, looters pillaged some $1.5 million in U.N. aid and carted off goods from a courthouse, a national bank office, a cigarette factory and the state archives, said Ouaddai provincial Gov. Mahamat Nimir Hamata.

Both Hamata’s office and his nearby official residence were stripped of doors, windows and plumbing.

``It’s really sad,″ said Hamata, who seemed particularly troubled by the disappearance of state records. ``I don’t understand the state of mind of the people. How can you destroy our archives?″

Hamata declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew late Sunday and, in a radio address, pleaded with people to return stolen property.

It was not clear what prompted civilians to loot and target government buildings, but President Idriss Deby, who took power at the head of a rebel army in 1990, is considered unpopular here.

Chadian rebels have clashed sporadically with government forces since 2005 and launched a failed attack on the capital N’djamena in April. The competition for power has become more intense since Chad began exporting oil in 2004. The rebels have been able to exploit volatility in neighboring Sudan, establishing bases in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, which borders eastern Chad.

French troops, who have a base near Abeche some 550 miles east of the capital, deployed to protect Abeche’s airport and some 150 foreigners seeking refugee in an aircraft hanger here.

``We are in a state of war,″ French officer Didier Lebailly told reporters and aid workers who arrived Monday on the first flight into Abeche since rebels briefly held the town.

He said Abeche still is under threat ``from all sides.″ French troops in jeeps mounted with machine guns patrolled the perimeter of the airport.

Gunfire could be heard in the distance after nightfall, and residents said it was rebels fighting government troops north of town. No casualties were immediately reported.

In Paris, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told reporters Monday: ``These new rebel attacks show again the gravity of the situation and the urgency for an international presence to be deployed along the border between Chad and Darfur,″ he said.

According to initial reports from staff, more than 500 tons of food worth $500,000 were taken from a World Food Program warehouse in Abeche. Also stolen was around $1 million worth of blankets, tents, stoves, medical, communications and water purification supplies and other equipment.

``Stealing food from people who have lost everything is the most shameful and inhumane act that anyone can possibly commit,″ WFP Executive Director James Morris said.

U.N. and other agencies based in Abeche deliver aid to 218,000 Darfur refugees and some 90,000 internally displaced Chadians.

In the capital, heavily armed Chadian soldiers reinforced their positions Monday. The government insisted its forces were pursuing the rebels in the east toward the Sudanese border.

Troops were positioned throughout the capital, cordoning off key government buildings and supported by at least a dozen tanks guarding the main entrances to the city. Schools have been closed and residents of N’djamena have been stocking up on food and water.

At dawn a French Mirage fighter jet conducted low-level reconnaissance flights over the capital and surrounding areas.

Both France and Britain have issued warnings of reports of rebel forces heading toward the capital, urging against all travel to Chad. The Chadian government has denied rebels were about 250 miles from the capital and said they were no longer advancing.

Besides the rebellion, Chad’s government has in recent weeks reported violence pitting ethnic Arab Chadians against ethnic African Chadians, mirroring ethnic clashes in Darfur. Chad accused Sudan of instigating the clashes. Chad often accuses Sudan of supporting Chadian rebels; Sudan makes a similar accusation against Chad.

In Darfur, ethnic African tribes who accuse the central government of neglect launched a rebellion three years ago, following years of low-level tribal clashes over land and water. The government is accused of responding by unleashing ethnic Arab tribal militias who have been linked to atrocities. Strife believed related to Darfur has also been reported in the Central African Republic.

More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced since fighting began in Darfur in early 2003.

Chad, an impoverished country in central Africa, has suffered from years of political turmoil that have hampered economic development. The economy relies on livestock and a relatively new oil industry.

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