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Chad uses airplanes in clash with rebels

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- Chadian military, rebels clash in east

- Conflicting tolls, diplomats warn of further tensions

By Moumine Ngarmbassa

N'DJAMENA, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Chadian armed forces called in air support during clashes with rebels in the east of the country, the first such fighting since May, both sides confirmed on Tuesday.

"The fighting was very brief. Airplanes came in support of our men on the ground," said Mahamat Hissene, Chad's information minister, when asked about fighting that took place on Sunday and Monday near the towns of Ade and Tissi, in Chad's east.

Hissene gave no information on a casualty toll but said fighting had started when a Chadian military vehicle drove over a landmine. He dismissed a rebel account of dozens of dead soldiers as "propaganda".

The Union of Forces for Resistance (UFR), a loose coalition of rebels fighting against President Idriss Deby's government, said it had inflicted a heavy toll on the army.

"Chadian military planes bombed our positions on Sunday and Monday. We then killed about 100 of their soldiers who fell into our ambush," UFR spokesman Abderaman Koulamallah told Reuters.

"For now the government forces have pulled back but we are waiting for the Chadian army to hit back," he added.

Fighting is mostly limited to the remote border areas but the Chadian rebels have launched several lightning assaults on N'Djamena while Sudanese rebels reached the outskirts of Khartoum last year, before being repelled by the army.

Chad and Sudan have been embroiled in a bitter row over the last five years, each accusing the other of backing rebels fighting against the central government.

A United Nations mission working to protect civilians who have fled fighting on both sides of the Chad-Sudan border could give no details on the clash.

But a diplomat monitoring the conflict said that the clash appears to have erupted when Chad's army deployed soldiers to counter a move towards Chad by Sudan-based rebels.

"There seem to be small clashes here and there but there is no serious fighting. What it does show is the lack of progress in the confidence-building measures to bring Chad and Sudan together," the diplomat said.

(Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Michael Roddy)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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