NAIROBI, Kenya -- Thousands of frightened Chadians took advantage of a lull in fighting yesterday to flee N'Djamena when rebels withdrew from the capital after two days of heavy clashes with government troops.
Officials, however, warned that battles probably were not over, and rebel leaders vowed to attack again.
"Rebels still have a capability of fighting," said Capt. Christophe Prazuck, spokesman for the French Ministry of Defense, which has 1,900 troops deployed in the central African country and has evacuated nearly 1,000 foreigners. "They announced they were leaving to reorganize their forces. They're not far from town, so things may change rapidly."
At the United Nations yesterday, the Security Council tacitly opened the door to military intervention by France and other countries with a unanimous condemnation of the rebels' attempt to seize power by force and a call for nations to help Chad's government end the violence.
The nonbinding statement also backed efforts by leaders from Libya and the Republic of Congo to try to broker a peace deal. The U.S. State Department and African Union also have criticized the assault as unconstitutional.
French ambassador Jean Maurice Ripert said France was providing only humanitarian assistance to Chad but hinted that the country was ready to respond if Chad asked for military support. Prazuck said French troops have an agreement with the Chadian military to share intelligence and provide medical support.
Humanitarian officials estimated at least 500 civilians have been wounded during the past two days of fighting, most of them caught in the cross fire.
More than 1,000 rebels penetrated the capital Saturday, facing off against government troops. It was Chad's third coup attempt in three years.
The death toll remained unclear, but officials were bracing for high numbers because of the heavy weaponry used. Bodies of some victims were lying in the streets.
At daylight yesterday, a crush of panicked civilians began evacuating the town, creating traffic jams on all major roads and a bridge spanning the Chari River toward neighboring Cameroon.
"There was a lot of overcrowding on the bridge, and some people abandoned their cars and walked," said Ann Birch, spokeswoman for World Vision in Darkar, after speaking to one of the charity's staffers in N'Djamena.
Doctors Without Borders said some of their health workers were unable to reach victims because of heavy traffic created by fleeing Chadians, a spokeswoman said.
European Union officials told reporters yesterday that the fighting temporarily had halted its deployment of 3,700 troops into eastern Chad, where they were being sent to help protect about 250,000 refugees from the Darfur conflict in western Sudan. But he remained optimistic that the deployment would resume.
Chadian officials and analysts accuse the Sudanese government of backing the Chad rebels in an attempt to install a Sudan-friendly regime and keep EU troops from the Chad-Sudan border. Officials in Khartoum denied that the Sudanese government has played a role.
"It's in our interest to have a politically stable neighbor," said Ali Sadiq, spokesman for Sudan's Foreign Ministry.
Regarding EU troops, he added, "Sudan is in no position, neither politically nor militarily, to challenge the deployment of these troops, though it's not a secret that we don't feel comfortable having them next door."
The whereabouts of Chadian President Idriss Deby remained unclear. He has not appeared publicly or released a statement since fighting began, but he was believed to be directing his troops from inside the presidential palace.
Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.