LIBREVILLE (AFP) — The United Nations voiced growing concern on Wednesday as Sudan-backed rebels said they were advancing towards the Chadian capital Ndjamena after clashing with government forces in the country's east.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon "is following developments in eastern Chad with increasing concern," the UN said in a statement, calling on Chad and Sudan to resume peace talks and urging respect for UN humanitarian operations.
The government said its forces had bombed the rebels but that there had been no fighting on the ground so far in the latest rebel incursion, which has once again ratcheted up tensions between Chad and its neighbour.
Chadian Interior and Public Security Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bashir said forces were also being dispatched to intercept a column of rebel fighters spotted in the Central African Republic (CAR) near the border with Chad.
An officer in the CAR army said they had no information for the moment about a rebel presence on their soil. But he added: "The situation worries us."
But a minister in the Bangui government said only: "The government will take its time to react."
Bashir accused Sudanese President Omar El-Beshir of ordering "mercenaries" to attack Chad and vowed that the rebels would be wiped out.
Chad and Sudan have had tense relations for years, each country accusing the other of trying to destabilise its government. The latest peace deal, signed only on Sunday in Doha, appeared now to have fallen through.
Chad's Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) rebels said in a statement that they had fought a "very short battle" with government troops on Tuesday near the border with Sudan and the Central African Republic and were advancing.
"We are doing everything in our power to reach Ndjamena. Our final objective is Ndjamena," a rebel official told AFP by telephone.
Bashir said however that the rebels had been "dealt with by our aircraft."
Chad said Tuesday that rebels had launched an assault backed by Sudan, using several hundred vehicles. Khartoum has denied any part in the offensive.
In its statement on Wednesday, the UN said Ban "appeals to all parties to respect the humanitarian character of the operations of the United Nations and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in eastern Chad."
Ban also asked all states in the region "to prevent their territories and nationals from being used to aid armed groups" and urged Chad and Sudan to settle their differences peacefully.
The African Union has also expressed "deep concern" over the hostilities.
Residents in the eastern town of Goz Beida, heard heavy gunfire, one of them told AFP.
Bashir implicitly confirmed this, stating that planes had attacked the rebels around Kerfi which is about 45 kilometers (27 miles) to the south.
Rebel forces entered villages to the north and south of Goz Beida without meeting resistance, diplomatic sources told AFP.
Staff at the World Food Programme said Wednesday they had stopped distribution of food in the refugee camp of Goz Amir, eastern Chad, housing 22,000 people because of security concerns, the agency announced.
Five of their staff had been moved to the nearby town of Goz Beida, said WFP spokesman Judith Schuler from Dakar.
Aid flights in the region had also been suspended, but work was continuing in 11 other camps in the region.
An estimated 450,000 civilians who fled the violence across the border in Sudan's Darfur region have sought refuge in eastern Chad.
Peace between Chad and Sudan is regarded as essential to any lasting settlement to a six-year-old uprising in Darfur, where Chad's rebels also have rear bases.
Chadian Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat met his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner in Paris and later said Chad was not seeking immediate military aid to counter the new offensive.
France has 1,100 soldiers serving in its former colony under a bilateral accord and 800 of its troops are serving in a UN-led force that last month took over from a European mission to protect refugees in camps.
In February last year, rebels battled their way to Ndjamena in western Chad in a bid to overthrow President Idiss Deby Itno before being beaten back with logistical help from some French forces.
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