Bodies swept off the streets in Chad as President claims victory over rebels

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The Independent Online

Ambulance workers began retrieving rotting corpses from the dusty streets of Chad's capital yesterday, as the country's government tried to restore an air of normality after a failed coup attempt by rebels that left at least 100 dead.

President Idriss Déby, who is accused by opponents of plundering the country's oil revenues and leaving the population in poverty, appeared in public for the first time to declare he was still in charge, as residents began to venture outside under the watchful eye of government soldiers.

"There are small signs that life is resuming. The corpses have been removed, the burnt-out jeeps have been pushed to the side of the road and bikes and cars have returned," Serge Male, the head of the UN refugee agency in Chad, said by telephone from N'Djamena.

The rebels' assault on the city, in which 700 were injured, has added more strands to an already-tangled web of tensions. Mr Déby, leader of Chad for almost two decades, has had to fend off several coup attempts in recent years from rebels he says are backed by Sudan. Khartoum in turn accuses Chad of backing the insurgency in Darfur.

Aid workers, already stretched juggling the needs of some 400,000 victims of the intertwined conflicts, were scrambling yesterday to feed and shelter tens of thousands of newly displaced Chadians who have fled across the river into Cameroon this week.

Seeking to shore up President Déby, France yesterday dispatched its Defence Minister, Hervé Morin, to the former colony.

Mr Deby, dressed in military fatigues, welcomed journalists to the presidential palace, dismissing reports that he was injured with a shrug of the shoulders, a spread of his arms and a beaming: "Look at me, I'm fine."

"We have total control of the situation, not only in the capital, but also the whole country," he insisted. However, he went on to suggest that there had been desertions from within his ranks. "I am working with less than a quarter of the members of my government," he said. "I do not know where the rest have gone to."

Mr Deby can rely on France, which has warplanes and more than 1,000 soldiers in the area and has shifted from a professed neutrality to offering its clear backing. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, has announced that Paris would intervene if necessary against the rebels.

Radio bulletins announced that the capital was now safe and police officers with megaphones paced the Cameroonian border urging the crowds to come back home.

But while there was a steady flow of people returning, aid workers in Cameroon said the prevailing feeling was one of "wait and see" – particularly as the rebels have said they have pulled out simply to regroup.

UN officials said they were ramping up plans to help at least 30,000 people in and around the town of Kousseri. Many have been sleeping in mosque doorways or under trees. One Chadian, who fled N'Djamena with his wife and six children, said he would not rush back. "The family was traumatised, especially the children. They couldn't sleep because of the gunfire and we were worried about them being injured by stray bullets," he said.

The attack also caused headaches in eastern Chad, where almost a quarter of a million refugees from Darfur are staying. The World Food Programme said the insecurity might disrupt the positioning of food stocks in the crucial months before the rainy season.

"It's one emergency on top of another," said Step-hanie Savariaud, spokeswoman for the WFP. "It's difficult because we're fighting fires on two fronts... and the normal supply routes have been disrupted."

Save the Children urged the UN to start emergency airlifts immediately to plug the gap now that all civilian flights have been grounded.

"It has to happen within 48 hours," said Gareth Owen, the charity's head of emergencies. "Otherwise the humanitarian aid effort will start to unravel."

The other casualty of the coup attempt is the European Union's peacekeeping force, which had been due to deploy to protect the Darfuri refugee camps. Their departure has been put back by at least a week. Analysts say this might have been the goal of the rebels, unlikely to welcome a beefed-up military presence in the unpatrolled semi-desert where they are based.