Heavy fighting near the Chadian capital has led European leaders to delay the transport of soldiers and equipment intended to protect citizens and refugees in the African country. The UN has evacuated most its staff.
Rebels and government forces clashed some 50km outside the Chadian capital
Already months after its hoped-for deployment date, a European peacekeeping force destined for Chad has, once again, been delayed, but politicians and military leaders say they hope soldiers and equipment will begin reaching the African country soon.
But a high-ranking African Union official told the AFP news agency that the fighting could have a serious impact on the force's deployment to Chad.
"This attack means that everything is up in the air," said the official, who declined to be identified.
EUFOR, as the EU's mission is called, is tasked with protecting civilians and refugees fleeing the war-torn Sudanese province of Darfur but its leaders decide in favor of a temporary delay in sending troops to N'djamena.
Planes grounded until instability ends
Additional European troops won't be in Chad for a few days
"The planes will not leave as long as the instability continues, but this does not mean it will last a long time," Lt. Col. Philippe de Cussac, a spokesman for the EU mission at its French headquarters, told the AFP news agency.
Some 60 soldiers were scheduled to depart Friday as part of the mission's advance team. The EU agreed to deploy a total of 3,700 soldiers, with most coming from France, to the region.
"At the moment we don't want to blow this out of proportion, but yes, a flight of Irish troops yesterday and two flights today have been postponed," an EU spokesman said in Brussels, adding that the situation would be monitored "hour by hour."
The French commander of EUFOR on the ground in Chad, Gen. Jean-Philippe Ganascia, said he was unconcerned by the rebels "unless during their offensive they threaten or attack civilians, or the non-governmental organizations, or UN personnel."
But he warned that if the rebels confront the EU force "believe me, I will face them down."
Fighting approaches capital
Most of the UN's employees in eastern Chad have left
Chad's former colonial power, France has already flown a 126-man strong combat unit to Chad. The unit joins the 1,100 troops permanently stationed there, 950 of whom are in the capital with the remaining 150 in Abeche, where EUFOR will also set up its base.
Citing rebel and military sources, France Inter radio said intense battles broke out at mid-morning at Massaguet, some 50 kilometers (31 miles) north-east of N'djamena after a column of rebel soldiers crossed the entire country in a matter of days.
The head of one of the three main rebel groups, Timan Erdimi, has given Chadian President Idriss Deby until later Friday to open negotiations on power-sharing or there would be a full-blown war, according to the Web site of the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.
"Even if we're at the gates of the palace, we're ready to negotiate a real sharing of power," Erdimi told Radio France International, adding that rebels has taken up positions around the capital.
UN evacuates staff
Hundredes of thousands have been displaced
As a result of the fighting, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said Friday it had evacuated most of its staff from the area of Guereda in eastern Chad.
The UNHCR team in the area said it had experienced several attacks in 72 hours, with gunmen in military uniforms breaking into its compound and threatening the guards with guns.
"If humanitarian workers are not around, it is impossible to provide adequate protection to the refugees," said Jorge Holly, head of the UNHCR field office in Guereda. "But the situation here is getting out of control and we also have to protect our staff and partners."
About 234,000 Darfur refugees, along with 179,000 displaced eastern Chadians and 43,000 Central Africans uprooted by strife and rebellion in the north of their country, are housed in camps in the region.