LIBREVILLE (AFP) — One of the helicopters that make up Chad's small air force made a "hard and forced landing" after taking part in a morning attack on rebel positions near the Sudan border, sources told AFP.
Two Russian-made Mi-35 attack helicopters and a larger, armed Mi-17 transport helicopter had set off from Abeche, the main city in the east of Chad, to target rebels in the area of Moudeina and Ade, a local source said.
Upon returning to Abeche, one of the helicopters made "a hard and forced landing" at the airport, about 500 metres (yards) from a camp where a European Union force charged with protecting Darfur refugees is situated, he added.
There were no reported casualties in the incident.
Contacted from Gabon's capital Libreville, National Alliance rebel spokesman Ali Gueddei said that guerrillas had "shot down a helicopter". He added that a rebel advance on the Chadian capital Ndjamena was "imminent."
"Chadian aircraft took part, which did not prevent our valiant forces from routing the enemy after inflicting heavy losses," he said, as he called upon government soldiers to defect to the rebel side.
"The beginning of the end of the Deby regime has started," he told AFP, referring to current President Idriss Deby Itno.
Late Thursday, the Chadian government said "mercenaries paid by Sudan" had entered Chad's territory Wednesday.
"The Chadian government took all measures to stop this latest aggression," the government said in a statement.
"This latest incursion confirms once again that Sudan is violating its commitments," the government said. The two countries had signed an accord in Dakar in March in which they agreed to stop supporting rebel groups.
Rebel spokesman Abderaman Koulamallah, also contacted by AFP from Libreville, meanwhile said the Chadian government must "understand that war is not a solution" to the Chad crisis.
He called on Ndjamena to "sit down at the negotiating table to seek a solution to the Chadian crisis guaranteed by France and the president of the Commission of the African Union."
Former colonial power "France must get involved in the crisis and all (political and rebel) protagonists must meet at a conference," Koulamallah added.
Such a peace conference for a definitive settlement could be modelled on a January 2003 meeting at Marcoussis near Paris where the Ivory Coast crisis took centre stage.
Chadian leader Deby was nearly toppled in February when rebels in pick-up trucks surged across the central African country from rear bases inside Sudan.
Chad has a total of six helicopters, flown by Algerians and Ukrainians. Three were dispatched to Abeche in early April; the others are believed to be in Ndjamena.
France, which ruled Chad until independence in August 1960, maintains a significant military presence, including warplanes, as well as contributing the most troops to the EU force, known as EUFOR.
Gueddei accused French military aircraft of carrying out "intimidating and provocative" flights over the rebels, and reminded Paris that it should maintain "an equal distance between the belligerents."
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