Chadian rebels are facing off against army troops and President Idriss Deby in the capital N'Djamena, after a day of heavy fighting in which rebels closed in on the presidential palace. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from our regional bureau in Dakar.

As night fell Saturday, it remained unclear which forces controlled which parts of the capital. Gunshots and artillery could still be heard, but were much more sporadic than during the day. The last heavy fighting was in the afternoon when tanks encircling the presidential palace started firing in all directions.

An exiled spokesman for the rebels, Makaila Nguebla, who spoke to other rebel leaders on the ground, says this did not make any difference. He says rebels were able to keep their positions around the palace. Rebels say President Idriss Deby, wherever he is, should surrender. Nguebla said the rebels were now trying to contain widespread looting in the capital while also maintaining their positions.

But Chadian military officials said rebels controlled very little of the city.

Foreign military observers said it appeared Chadian government forces had regained parts of the capital as the day progressed.

Whoever was in control, there appeared to have been extensive damage and heavy casualties.

A United Nations security official said he briefly walked through the streets of N'Djamena and saw many bullet holes in buildings, and burned bodies lying in the streets.

Foreigners were among the dead. The foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia said the wife and daughter of an employee at the Saudi embassy were killed when a bomb hit the ambassador's residence.

The clashes followed a one-week desert offensive by rebels from their bases in eastern Chad and Sudan to the center of Chad's western capital.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin said French troops present in N'Djamena as part of a military accord between France and Chad were remaining neutral in the fighting.

He said France had sent over a plane to help evacuate any foreign citizen who wished to leave.

The U.S. State Department urged Americans visiting Chad to leave, while the U.S. embassy ordered the evacuation of some staff and family.

President Deby, who has been in power since his own coup in 1990, has faced many rebellions and attempted coups, but never to this point.

Rebels, many of them defectors from the army and former top government officials, have been seeking Mr. Deby's overthrow since he changed the constitution several years ago, allowing him to run for unlimited terms. Mr. Deby accuses the Chadian rebels of being backed by Sudan, a charge Sudanese officials deny.

Condemnation of the rebel attacks has been widespread, from African capitals to Europe. Speaking on French radio, the European Union development minister, Louis Michel, strongly condemned the actions of the rebels.

Because of the fighting, the European Union has postponed deploying a planned peacekeeping operation, in Chad and the Central African Republic, along the border with Sudan, to protect displaced people in a region wracked by conflict.