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US Sending Envoy to Chad to Discuss Political Turmoil, Oil Dispute

The United States is sending a senior envoy to Chad to try to help resolve political unrest there, as well as a commercial dispute that could halt the north African state's oil production. Officials say Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto will be in the capital N'Djamena toward the end of the month.

The decision to send the envoy reflects U.S. concern about the situation in Chad, where rebel forces attacked the capital last week and where a dispute over how the government uses its oil revenues could halt the country's exports at a time of tight world supplies.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters the main reason the Deputy Assistant Secretary will visit Chad will be to stress in person to government leaders the need to engage with the political opposition and to come to an accommodation.

A major issue in the country's political conflict has been President Idriss Deby's decision to change the constitution so he can run for re-election in voting set for May 3.

Opposition elements are boycotting the process, and rebels who Mr. Deby says are backed by Sudan are showing increasing strength, as seen in the attacks in N'Djamena that were repulsed by government forces.

Mr. Deby is also in a confrontation with the World Bank, threatening to cut off oil exports unless the bank releases money frozen because his government has allegedly reneged on an agreement to use oil income to alleviate poverty.

Chadian authorities say they have agreed to a U.S. request to move back a deadline to halt oil exports from Tuesday to the end of the month to allow Yamamoto to mediate the dispute.

However, at a news briefing, State Department Spokesman McCormack rejected the depiction of the envoy's mission as a mediation effort. He said the United States does not intend to interpose itself between Chad and international financial agencies, but rather to try and serve as an honest broker:

"We will do what we have in the past, and will continue to do what we can to encourage them to reach whatever settlements that they will reach, that are acceptable to both sides. But we are not taking a mediating role. We will encourage. We may even at some point cajole, but I would not say we are going to mediate," he said.

McCormack said Yamamoto would meet Chadian leaders and perhaps also officials of the World Bank, but has no plans to meet officials of the consortium led by the U.S. oil giant Exxon-Mobil that is operating oilfields there.

The World Bank had a deal with Chad to finance a pipeline for its oil exports through Cameroon, provided it used most of its oil revenue to combat poverty. But Mr. Deby's government pushed a law through parliament in December scrapping the earmark provisions, insisting the oil money was needed to pay state employees.

Chad, where oil was discovered in 1993, is still a relatively small producer, with exports running less 200,000 barrels a day. But the country has earned more than $300 million in oil income in the last two years.