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Chad Rebels Urge European Countries Not to Send Peacekeepers

Rebels in Chad are urging European countries to refrain from sending peacekeepers to the country's border with Sudan, saying the force will not be neutral. Meanwhile, opposition leaders in the capital N'Djamena are still missing. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

In a statement released from Gabon, an allied group of rebels said it no longer believed in the neutrality of a force essentially composed of French troops.

They demanded that other European countries refrain from sending their troops to the peacekeeping mission, whose final objective, the rebels say, is to protect the government of long-standing President Idriss Deby.

During fighting earlier this month, which reached the center of the capital N'Djamena, French forces permanently based in Chad gave medical, logistical and surveillance support to the Chadian army. France denied persistent reports, including in the French media, that its soldiers had engaged in direct combat.

Commanders of the European force have said they will remain neutral and that their aim is to secure camps of displaced people along the border with Sudan from the region's many conflicts. But they say they will delay by at least four weeks the planned deployment, because of the recent fighting in Chad.

A large convoy of rebels is reported to be 700 kilometers southeast of the capital, having traveled hundreds of kilometers across the desert in recent days.

The main rebel spokesman, Aberaman Koulamallah told French media they are stocking up on munitions and provisions to launch a new attack on N'Djamena, and that they will never give up. He says they are fighting against a corrupt regime.

Government officials say army troops are following the rebels, which they call Sudanese-backed mercenaries, and will attack them when they believe they can wipe them out.

Meanwhile, government officials say the rebels have many accomplices in the capital, and that anyone found guilty of such association will have to face the law.

At least three major opposition leaders, including a former head of state, are missing, after apparently being abducted by government soldiers during the recent unrest.

Reed Brody from New York-based Human Rights Watch says it is hard to tell how much support there is for the rebels in N'Djamena.

"There are not public opinion polls and there have not been free elections," said Brody. "I do not think either side here would win a popularity contest. Idriss Deby obviously has a lot of support, but there is also a lot of opposition. That opposition increased when he changed the constitution a couple of years ago to allow himself to run for a third term."

The recent fighting in Chad caused a mass exodus from N'Djamena into nearby Cameroon, while also disrupting aid deliveries to refugees from Sudan's Darfur conflict. Darfurian refugees in Chad recently swelled in numbers because of heightened attacks in that region as well, amid delays in the deployment of a hybrid United Nations-African Union force for Darfur.

The rebellion in Chad follows the opening of a World Bank-funded oil pipeline that has helped further tap the country's vast oil wealth, triggering warnings from activists and the opposition leaders who have warned of problems.

Chad's oil minister says the country's oil output of about 150,000 barrels a day had not been affected by the fighting.