ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia --Armed rebels entered N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, before dawn yesterday, but government troops beat them back in fierce fighting, prompting embattled President Idriss Deby to take to the airwaves and declare, "The situation is under control."
That might have been an overstatement. The rebels, known as the United Front for Democratic Change, vowed to continue their effort to overthrow Deby before the May 3 presidential election.
An undetermined number of rebels crept into the capital early yesterday. As thick black smoke rose above the city center, government tanks took up strategic positions and helicopters fired rockets at rebel positions, according to witnesses and news service reports. The number of casualties was unclear.
Deby, who is seeking to extend his controversial rule after pushing through changes to the constitutional limit of two terms in office, sought to downplay what was a huge embarrassment for his government: a siege on the capital by rebels who had until recently been hundreds of miles away on Chad's eastern frontier.
"We let them come right where we are waiting for them," Deby told Radio France International from the presidential palace, "and we have them right where we want them."
As Deby gave an upbeat assessment of the day's events, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Annan was "greatly troubled by the worsening security situation in Chad" and condemned "any attempts to seize power by force or other unconstitutional means."
The chaos was nothing new for N'Djamena, the site of coup after coup since Chad, a landlocked country in the center of Africa, gained independence from France in 1960.
The rebel incursion, although brief, was a sign of just how shaky Deby's grasp on power has become. Made up of former commanders in Deby's army, the rebels claimed earlier in the week that they had taken Mongo, a strategic town about 250 miles east of the capital.
Overnight on Wednesday, the government poured reinforcements into strategic positions in the capital, and anxious residents began stocking up on staples in anticipation of a siege.
In eastern Chad, where the rebels are at their strongest, they also moved on Adre, near the border with Sudan. "Our forces have entered Adre," Abdoulaye Abdel Karim, a rebel leader, told Reuters yesterday.
French fighter jets, part of the long-standing French military presence in Chad, soared overhead, monitoring the early morning clashes. The French government has said it is providing logistical support to the government but is not taking sides in the fighting. France sent 150 soldiers to Chad on Wednesday to shore up a force of 1,200. Their mission, the French Defense Ministry said, was to protect the hundreds of French nationals living in Chad.
As fear grew of all-out fighting in the streets, the U.S. Embassy was scrambling to evacuate nonessential staff from the capital.
But Deby said the government had the rebels on the run. "The current situation in the city of N'Djamena is totally, I am telling you, totally under control," he told French radio, even as the journalist interviewing him noted gunfire in the background.
"There are no rebels," the president said of the sporadic shooting heard for much of the day. "I assure you there are no rebels. Those are runaways who entered the city on foot."
Deby took hold of the presidency by launching a similar rebel offensive in 1989, from a base in the western Darfur region of Sudan. With help from the Libyans and with French troops looking on, he marched on N'Djamena in December 1990. Since then, his Patriotic Salvation Movement has won two presidential elections, and Deby changed the constitution so he can seek a third term next month.
But Deby, a former general, has had difficulty controlling his army. Last year, he accused soldiers of trying to mutiny against him. And this week he publicly fired 70 officers who had already deserted to join the rebels.
As he has done in the past, Deby blamed the Sudanese government for orchestrating the attack against him, saying that weapons seized in the raid will lay bare Khartoum's role in the coup.
Sudanese officials have denied the charge and have blamed Deby's forces for backing Darfur rebels seeking to overthrow the government in Khartoum.
The war in Darfur is a source of Chad's instability. With hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees in eastern Chad and armed groups roaming each side of the border, the always-porous frontier region between the countries has grown even more lawless.
The rebels who attacked N'Djamena yesterday started their offensive in Darfur before swooping through southern Chad and then north toward the capital.
Sudan and Chad signed an agreement in February intended to ease the rising tensions in the border region, but armed factions continue to clash on the ground.
Oil is another important factor in the conflict, with a new World Bank-financed oil pipeline just beginning to deliver profits to the government. A scramble is under way to divide the wealth.