Chad president backs off threat to expel Darfur refugees

President Idriss Deby, heeding international calls to protect refugees from Sudan's volatile Darfur region, on Monday backed off a threat to expel them despite blaming Khartoum for last week's deadly rebel attack on the capital. Deby's government also extended a deadline for halting oil production, saying it welcomed U.S. help in resolving a dispute with the World Bank over oil payments.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in Geneva that Deby had given assurances that his country would abide by international refugee law and not force the Sudanese out. "President Deby expressed his understandable concern about the difficulties involved in providing security both to the refugees and to the humanitarian organizations that are helping them," Guterres said Monday after a telephone conversation with Deby the previous night.

Deby had announced on Friday the day after a rebel attack on N'Djamena that he was severing relations with Sudan and threatened to expel 200,000 Sudanese refugees if the international community did not do more to stop what he claimed were Sudanese backed-rebels from destabilizing his government before the May 3 presidential election. Sudan has denied any involvement with the Chadian rebels.

Chadian forces repelled the attack on Thursday, but the rebel United Front for Change was regrouping in the countryside and the threat of a violent overthrow of the government remained. Rumors circulated through the capital that a rebel force was just 25 kilometers (15 miles) outside of the capital. Deby's government has tried to attract international attention to Chad's problems, and its oil minister, Mahmat Hassan Nasser, threatened on Saturday to shut down the country's oil pipeline unless the government received by midday Tuesday oil revenues that were frozen by the World Bank. Chad exports only 160,000 barrels per day, produced by a U.S.-Malaysia consortium of ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and Petronas.

But Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-mi said Monday that Chad has extended a shutdown deadline until the end of April to enable the U.S. government to mediate in the dispute. "The American government requested a delay on the deadline and they are leading an effort to mediate the discussions between the World Bank, the consortium and the Chadian government," Allam-mi told The Associated Press. "But in the meantime, we have postponed the deadline until the end of April."

The World Bank froze an escrow account with US$125 million ( Ђ 103 million) in oil royalties in London in January after Chad's parliament voted to change a law governing the use of the country's oil revenues, releasing more revenues to the government's general budget instead of channeling them to health, education and building Chad's infrastructure.

The World Bank had helped finance oil industry infrastructure in Chad after the country agreed to observe stringent rules on the use of oil revenues. Many in Chad fear the oil wealth will be misused, failing to lift the masses out of poverty while sharpening rivalries that have erupted into violence in the past.

The World Bank also cut US$124 million (103 million) in financial aid. The government said it needs urgent access to the oil revenues to address priority issues, including security. Most people think the battle for Chad, which Deby has ruled for almost 16 years, is far from over.

Henriette Blaah, a 46-year-old secretary in N'djamena, said she was very afraid of what the future may hold. "We don't know if the rebels will come back today or tomorrow," she said. "I've been listening to the radio, and the rebels said they would come back, and I pray that they do not. We do not want this." Rebel commander Col. Regis Bechir told Radio France International on Saturday that Deby's regime was a menace that must be removed from power.

"Dialogue is the only way to save the people of Chad," he said. "A national reconciliation, with a democratic basis, would be best. And we are determined to continue the armed struggle against the phony elections." Deby repeatedly has accused Sudan of hiring mercenaries to overthrow his government. Sudan has denied this and has long accused Chad of supporting fighters in its volatile Darfur region, where Arab militias and African rebels have fought for nearly three years. Some 180,000 people have died in Darfur.

Deby a co-mediator in African Union efforts to negotiate a peace deal for Darfur ordered Chadian officials to pull out of the Darfur peace talks after the attack on N'Djamena. Chad, an arid, landlocked country about three times the size of France, has been wracked by violence for most of its history, including more than 30 years of civil war since gaining independence from France in 1960 and various small-scale insurgencies since 1998, reports the AP.

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