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Chad coup attempt could alter balance in Darfur

Mon., Feb. 4, 2008, midnight

NAIROBI, Kenya – As rebels in Chad fought for a second day to take control of the nation’s capital, analysts said Sunday that the outcome of the attempted coup could have far-reaching implications for the Darfur conflict in neighboring Sudan.

Foreign observers said the military standoff remained unresolved. President Idriss Deby appeared to be holed up with a large force of loyal troops in his presidential palace.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders reported that scores of civilians had been wounded, mostly from errant gunfire. Looting has been reported in N’Djamena, the capital, and the French government evacuated at least 500 foreigners.

Rebels claimed to have seized control of the town of Adre, along the eastern border with Sudan, while Chadian authorities told reporters the attackers had included Sudanese troops and had been repelled. Neither report could be verified.

A collapse of Deby’s regime likely would be felt beyond Chad’s borders. The Chadian president has been a big supporter of Darfur rebels in western Sudan, and his fall would threaten to tilt the balance of power in Darfur toward the Sudanese government, which is backing the rebel assault under way in Chad.

“This could be a big win for Sudan,” said Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group. “The rebel alliance will be beholden to Khartoum. They will control one of the main access points and windows into Darfur.”

Chad is currently host to about 250,000 Darfur refugees who fled violence in western Sudan over the past four years. Chad also serves as an important gateway for humanitarian groups, journalists, human-rights activists and peacekeepers, many of whom are unable to access Darfur through other areas of Sudan. Experts said that access could be at risk if a Sudan-friendly regime suddenly took control of Chad.

In addition, Darfur rebel groups use Chad as a safe haven and launching point for attacks against Sudanese government troops. Deby, who seized control of Chad through a coup in 1990, is from the same Zaghawa tribe as one of the main Darfur rebel movements. His government has supplied Darfur rebels with guns and allowed them to set up training camps along his border.

“If Deby goes, that could be a decisive blow for the Darfurian rebel operations in Chad,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of ENOUGH, a grass-roots anti-genocide group.

A weakened Darfur rebel movement could complicate mediation talks between the Sudanese government and guerrillas to end a conflict that has killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced more than 2 million.

“It would shift the strategic balance in Khartoum’s favor and make it that much harder to get a (peace) deal,” Prendergast said.

Sudan has denied supporting Chadian rebels. Government officials in Khartoum could not be reached for comment Sunday.

But experts say Sudan played a key role in organizing Chad’s disparate groups of bickering rebels into the current coalition, the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development, that is fighting in N’Djamena. Sudanese officials pledged their support for an assault, but only if the rebels united.

“Sudan knocked some heads together and obviously it worked,” Brody said.

Unlike a similar 2006 attack on N’Djamena, when small bands of confused rebels got lost on the streets of the capital, the current force is better-armed and well-organized, experts said. The rebels are led by disgruntled former government officials who defected from Deby’s government after he amended the country’s constitution to run for another term.

The timing of the rebel attack is believed to be linked to the impending deployment of 3,700 European Union peacekeepers being sent on a humanitarian mission to protect refugees in eastern Chad. The Sudanese government had pressured Deby to resist the international deployment, but he said he would accept the troops. EU officials announced Saturday the mission would be delayed.

If Deby’s government falls, the fate of the deployment is uncertain, raising concerns about the protection of Darfur refugees.

“There is a serious humanitarian catastrophe in eastern Chad, and Chad doesn’t have the means to deal with it,” said Paul Simon Hendy, security analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

He predicted that rebels, if they seized control of the country, would be under strong international pressure to allow the European force to deploy as planned. Already, the United States and African Union have condemned the rebel assault as unconstitutional. AU officials are threatening to expel Chad if the rebels take power by force.

Hendy said a new regime would likely feel pressure to pursue democratic reforms and take other steps designed to appease the international community, including accepting international troops.


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