EU urges Chad government, rebels to negotiate peace
(Updates with Oxfam reaction, paragraphs 7-10)
By Stephanie Hancock
N'DJAMENA, Feb 18 (Reuters) - The European Union called on Chad's warring government and rebels to negotiate a peace deal, as relief agencies said on Monday a new refugee crisis was developing in the east where EU troops are being deployed.
Some 500,000 people, including refugees from Sudan's western Darfur region and Chadians displaced by war and ethnic violence, are sheltering in camps in eastern Chad.
But renewed fighting, both in Chad and Darfur, has hampered aid, delayed the deployment of EU peacekeepers and forced thousands more refugees into Chadian territory.
Relief organisations, many of whom have evacuated workers after a rebel assault on the Chadian capital N'Djamena two weeks ago, said the fresh influx of refugees was stretching aid resources and risked causing a major new humanitarian emergency.
European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels condemned the recent rebel offensive against the government of Chadian President Idriss Deby, who has also obtained backing from the United Nations Security Council.
"The Council (of the European Union) calls on all Chadian parties to unconditionally renounce the use of force and engage in a constructive dialogue aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the current situation," the EU ministers said in a statement.
British charity Oxfam welcomed the EU statement but said Europe needed to "back its words with real action" in the form of concerted diplomatic pressure.
"Chad's beleaguered population deserves a future. Europe needs to learn the lessons of Darfur. We are at risk of having two "peacekeeping forces" deployed on each side of the Chad/ Darfur border, neither of which have a true peace to keep," Oxfam's West Africa director Nick Roseveare said.
The EU mission to Chad complements a much bigger African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force planned for Darfur.
"Without full cessation of hostilities, comprehensive peace processes and full international engagement, it looks unlikely either force will be able to deliver the long-term peace and security Chadians and Darfuris deserve," Roseveare said.
Chadian rebels, who accuse former colonial power France of propping up Deby with military force, said the government had rejected their offers to negotiate.
"We're not going to just throw down our arms and say the war's over while our country is suffering under a dictatorship," Abderamane Koullamalah, a spokesman for the alliance of three rebel movements fighting Deby, told Reuters.
CHAD ACCUSES SUDAN
Deby's government says its army has routed the rebels.
Koullamalah said rebel columns were regrouping and rearming in the eastern Dar Sila region that borders Sudan's Darfur. Weakened by divisions in the past, they were seeking to appoint a single overall leader before going on the offensive again.
"Afterwards, we'll be attacking N'Djamena, it's no secret," Koullamalah said, speaking by satellite phone.
Chad accuses neighbour Sudan of backing the anti-Deby rebels, a charge routinely denied by Khartoum.
"Khartoum wants to turn Chad into a satellite country, and this must be avoided," Chad's new defence minister, Gen. Mahamat Ali Abdallah Nassour, who was sworn in on Monday, told Reuters.
The EU resumed the deployment of its civilian protection force for eastern Chad last week, after a brief suspension following the Feb. 2-3 battle for N'Djamena.
French troops make up the majority of the 3,700-strong EU force, and so the rebels have questioned its neutrality, saying they will defend themselves if threatened by it.
"If EUFOR plays a humanitarian role, there are no problems. But if it wants to play the kind of role France has done, then it will be entering into conflict with us," Koullamalah said.
The European ministers insisted the EU force, which will also be deployed in northeast Central African Republic, would "act in an impartial, neutral and independent manner".
They called on the governments of Sudan and Chad, who have come close to all-out war on several occasions, to stop supporting and equipping armed groups hostile to each other.
Deby's government should also free opposition members detained during the recent rebel attack, the ministers said. (Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Brussels and Pascal Fletcher in Dakar; writing by Pascal Fletcher and Daniel Flynn; editing by Andrew Roche)