Rebels in Chad are gearing up for a decisive battle to unseat the country's government, which threatened an incursion into neighbouring Sudan, while the UN Security Council gave the go-ahead for other countries to intervene in the conflict.
Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-Mi Monday said Chadian armed forces were prepared to cross the border into Sudan if it was necessary after fiercely criticising Khartoum for allegedly backing the rebel groups fighting against the government of President Idriss Deby.
"If it is necessary for the security of Chad, we will go to Sudan," Allam-Mi told French broadcaster RFI.
Chadian officials said Sudanese helicopters had flown in support of rebels attacking the city of Adre in the east of the country, a charge which the Sudanese government immediately denied.
UN sources said fighting continued Monday and forced a delay in the deployment of UN staff and a European Union force of more than 3,000 troops to the Sudan-Chad border. The force is mandated to protect Sudanese refugees who fled fighting in Sudan's Darfur region.
Rebel troops entered the capital, N'Djamena, this weekend after advancing toward the capital last week in a renewed attempt to unseat Deby. Aid groups said hundreds of civilians have been injured and thousands more have fled. There was no official word on casualties.
Allam-Mi declared the battle for N'Djamena over and said government forces had driven the rebels out of the city after two days of intense fighting.
However, RFI quoted rebel leaders as saying that they had withdrawn from the centre of the city to give civilians a chance to flee before a possibly decisive battle.
The website of the French weekly Le Point quoted a rebel spokesman, Abderaman Koulamallah, as saying that rebel groups camped just outside N'Djamena were awaiting the arrival of additional forces.
"We are waiting for a column of reinforcements, who should arrive shortly. As soon as they arrive, we will move towards the (city) centre," he said.
The 15-nation Security Council in New York issued a statement calling on UN members "to provide support, in conformity with the UN Charter, as requested by the government of Chad".
Such a statement opens the possibility for military intervention by states supporting the Chadian government. The statement, which had been haggled over since Sunday, condemned the rebel incursion and said the council was against "all attempts at destabilisation by force".
French President Nicolas Sarkozy had earlier Monday said his country would consider intervening in the conflict if the Security Council sanctioned it.
"There is a legitimate government in Chad that must be supported," Sarkozy said.
Two years ago, French fighter jets attacked rebel columns as they marched on N'Djamena. France has more than 2,000 soldiers stationed in Chad, most of them in N'Djamena.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin said France had a military cooperation agreement with its former colony, but not one that obliged it to come to the country's defence.
"This agreement of military cooperation does not in any way oblige French military forces to intervene," Morin said in an interview published Monday in the daily Le Figaro.
The fighting has driven thousands of residents to take refuge across the border in Cameroon, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Monday.
Chadian refugees told RFI that that they had been roused in the middle of the night by rebel soldiers and ordered to leave the city. Witnesses said that bodies littered the streets of the capital.
The French government said it evacuated some 600 foreign nationals from N'Djamena. The French Army put the total number of foreigners evacuated at 839. South Africa's diplomatic mission was in talks with French authorities to evacuate 15 South Africans from the country, the Department of Foreign Affairs said in Johannesburg.
The US State Department said it has evacuated its embassy in Chad. There are several hundred Americans in Chad, and less than 100 of them have left the country, spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Earlier Monday, the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it was treating 70 people who were wounded in the fighting. MSF said most of the injured were civilians who were suffering from bullet wounds, adding that the continuing fighting was making it hard to reach those wounded.