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Residents Flee Chad Capital


U.N. officials say thousands of Chadians have been fleeing the capital N'Djamena to neighboring Cameroon after two days of heavy fighting between rebel groups and government forces. Kari Barber reports from our West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar that rebels who are on the outskirts of N'Djamena say they are preparing a new offensive.

Humanitarian workers say hundreds of people have been injured in the fighting, while stores and wealthy neighborhoods have been looted and inmates have escaped from the main prison.

Foreign security officials say the army appeared to control the presidential palace and parliament, while rebels still held positions in the east and on northern outskirts.

Geneva-based Helene Caux, of the U.N. refugee agency, says thousands of Chadians have been fleeing on foot by a bridge that reopened Sunday connecting N'Djamena to the Cameroon town of Kousseri.

"We are trying to see how we could bring basic assistance such as blankets, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets to try to assist the people, but most of all we also want to evaluate in which state they are arriving - if they managed to bring their possessions with them, probably there are some wounded people also," said Caux.

Members of Chadian opposition parties are also among those fleeing, after some say their families were attacked.

Aid workers say there are also long-term humanitarian concerns.

The U.N. food organization supplies provisions to about 400,000 displaced people in eastern Chad, where there was also a rebel attack Sunday. Spokeswoman Stephanie Savariaud says the fighting is threatening to disrupt the distribution of food aid.

"Because of the current instability, it is obvious that we cannot get this food in. Fortunately we have propositioned enough food for February and March, but from March we will still need to get food in. If the situation does not ease quickly it is going to be a problem for the months to come," she said.

Civilians in N'Djamena say they are running out of food, as shops remained closed.

Rebels who faced off against presidential guard in battles across the city, including outside the presidential palace, have mostly left the capital. The government officials are calling the retreat a victory.

But exiled Chadian rebel spokesman Makaila Nguebla, speaking from Dakar, says it was a tactical move.

Nguebla says the rebels want to give the population a chance to leave so that they will not be caught up in the fighting. He says the rebels will attack again and the positions of the republican guard and President Idriss Deby will be their targets.

A main rebel leader said some rebel fighters moved away from the capital to block rebels he says are coming from Darfur to help Mr. Deby. The Darfurian rebels have their political headquarters in N'Djamena.

The Chadian rebels arrived in the capital Friday after a three-day push across the desert. They say they are seeking to oust Mr. Deby who took power in a coup in 1990.

President Deby has accused Sudan of backing the rebels, which Sudanese officials deny.

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