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Chadian Army Helicopters, Tanks Battle Rebels Besieging Presidential Palace

Fighting around Chad's presidential palace has intensified as rebels try to overthrow long-time President Idriss Deby. Meanwhile, foreigners have started fleeing the battle-torn capital. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

Clashes between rebels and government troops resumed early Sunday morning in N'Djamena on several fronts including at the presidential palace, where President Deby is believed to be holed up.

Residents said they could hear heavy weapons and anti-tank fire, as well as exchanges of automatic gunfire.

An official from the former colonial power France says French troops present in the capital have offered to help the president escape the rebel onslaught but that he has refused.

Meanwhile, government helicopters attacked a column of rebels advancing from the south to the center of the capital, pushing them back.

French mirage fighter jets were flying over N'Djamena at low altitude and firing flares, further confusing the situation.

French troops have been trying to organize mass evacuations of foreigners, but these were disrupted on Sunday. Many foreigners have regrouped in luxury hotels close to the scene of the fighting.

Overnight, when the clashes stopped for many hours, hundreds of French and other foreign nationals were evacuated on French military planes to nearby Gabon.

France has agreements with Chad to have permanent military bases in its former colony.

Late Saturday on French public television, French Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner called for a truce. He says President Nicolas Sarkozy has been in constant contact with Mr. Deby.

Mr. Kouchner says the French government wants a cease-fire, negotiations and what he called "an arrangement."

The foreign minister says the French military accords are technical and for cooperation, and not for the defense of the country. For now, he says, the situation is moving very quickly.

Kouchner says French troops have been giving medical support to the Chadian army.

A United Nations security official said some streets of the capital were littered with the remains of burned bodies. Casualties figures have not been given.

The rebel offensive began last week from bases in Sudan, in a lightning desert march to the center of the capital, marking the biggest threat to Mr. Deby's rule since he himself took power in a coup in 1990. Rebel leaders, many of them former close allies of the president, say they are fighting for democracy, after Mr. Deby changed the constitution to allow unlimited presidential terms, and declared himself the winner of the last poll in 2006, widely viewed as fraudulent.

The Chadian president accuses Sudan of being behind the rebellion, a charge Sudanese officials deny. Rebels fighting against the Sudanese government have headquarters in N'Djamena.

African, European and American officials have condemned the Chadian rebel assault. It has forced the postponement of a planned European peacekeeping force in Chad and the Central African Republic, in the violence-wracked region that borders Sudan's warring Darfur province.

But one Chadian rebel leader said he had no problems with the European force deploying, as long as they stayed out of what he called internal Chadian affairs.