N'djamena — The European Union's first major overseas military deployment - to the impoverished central African nation of Chad - is caught in a war of words between the country's president and tenacious rebel groups operating on Chad's arid border with Sudan.
On Monday, Chadian President Idriss Deby accused the peacekeepers of effectively aiding rebel groups, sparking a diplomatic row. The peacekeepers' poorly-understood mandate lies at the heart of the dispute.
2,750 soldiers from 18 countries had been deployed in Chad by mid-May. The European Force -- EUFOR includes more than 1500 French troops; with significant but smaller numbers from Ireland and Sweden -- has a U.N. mandate to protect a quarter-million refugees and the thousands of international aid workers working to assist them. The refugees have fled Sudan's Darfur region, where for five years militia groups have carried out bloody attacks that some have labeled genocide.
U.N. Resolution 1778, passed in September, authorises the force to "contribute to protecting civilians in danger, particularly refugees and displaced persons... [and] to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid."
It is not within the force's mandate to intervene in Chadian security issues. A representative of the Irish battlegroup said his troops would step aside if rebel forces launched a major assault on the capital.
Bandits perhaps represent the biggest threat to the refugees -- there have been 140 assaults on aid workers and 84 carjackings of aid vehicles since 2006, according to the U.N. But eastern Chad is also the major battleground between the Chadian government and the rebel groups that Chad claims are supported by Sudan.
At a press briefing in Geneva, U.N. High Commission for Refugees spokesperson Ron Redmond said rebels persuaded or coerced as many as 4,700 men and boys to join them from the Breidjing and Treguine refugee camps in March.
"These activities have not stopped, according to refugees, and we fear recruitment could also be spreading to other refugee sites in eastern Chad... despite UNHCR's previous denunciation of such activities and our repeated appeals to the Chadian government to ensure that the civilian character of refugee camps is maintained," Redmond said.
According to UNHCR, recruits who returned the camps reported that they were told they would be sent to Darfur to fight the Sudanese government; those who refused to participate in military training were beaten.
In February, rebels crossed hundreds of kilometres of desert to mount a major assault on the capital of N'Djamena in the country's west. As many as 700 people were killed, many of them civilians. In the wake of the attack, Chad boosted its military presence in the east, including patrols by armed airplanes and helicopters.
In early June rebels mounted several small-scale raids on eastern towns, drawing fire from Chadian troops and helicopters. One helicopter was hit by rebel fire: the rebels claim it was shot down, but N'Djamena insists the aircraft landed safely. An Irish EUFOR contingent also briefly came under fire, and shot back in self-defense.
It's unclear how many people have died in the latest round of fighting. The Chadian army on Wednesday claimed to have killed more than 100 rebels, but the figure is impossible to verify.
As fighting continues, EUFOR begins the delicate task of carrying out its narrow mandate despite pressure from all sides.
In the days preceding the June attacks, the rebels announced that they would call off their planned campaign if the EU would broker talks with President Idriss Deby.
And in a televised address on Monday Deby said EUFOR, by declining to engage the rebels, was essentially was "cooperating with the invaders." Deby said rebels had stolen aid groups' supplies while the peacekeepers deliberately looked the other way.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana quickly rejected Deby's accusations. He stressed that EUFOR's sole mandate was to protect refugees and aid workers.
Deby's administration later appeared to back away from its anti-EUFOR rhetoric. Chad's interior minister affirmed EUFOR's mission. "Secure the camps, secure the humanitarians around the camps - that is their sole mission," Ahmat Mahamat Bachir said. "The defence of our country is our business."
EUFOR spokesman Jean Axelos, a French army colonel, says that EUFOR's mission is widely misunderstood - even by the aid groups that the force protects. He says every aid group wants something different from EUFOR. "Some want us close, others want us far away."
He says that for practical reasons, EUFOR will consider a mix of tactics. This apparently includes air patrols, which can cover a lot of terrain fast, in addition to the usual convoy escorts by ground troops.
Aid groups have been critical of EUFOR in the past. Most groups work hard to maintain an appearance of neutrality in conflicts. But these days few aid agencies will travel in eastern Chad without some kind of armed escort, whether Chadian army or EUFOR. Aid workers generally consider the EU force the more reliable of the two, since it is exclusively dedicated to humanitarian protection, whereas the Chadian army is increasingly focused on combating the rebels.
But with just 3,100 soldiers on the ground at present -- only 1,200 of whom actively patrol -- and tens of thousands of square miles of terrain to cover, EUFOR can't be everthing to every aid group, nor can it provide a direct escort for every convoy. "We'd need ten EUFORs with ten mandates," Axelos says.
Despite the seeming détente over EUFOR's mission achieved on Tuesday, Chad's war of words escalated on other fronts. On Tuesday the government issued a statement accusing Sudan of openly attacking the Chadian border town of Ade with troops and helicopters.
"Khartoum has finally thrown off its mask," the statement read, referring to N'Djamena's long-standing allegation that Sudan supplies, arms and harbors rebel groups conducting attacks in Chad.
Khartoum has denied the allegations -- and has fired back with some of its own. The Sudanese government has accused Chad of backing the Justice and Equality Movement rebel group, which in May attacked Khartoum. Chad and Sudan severed diplomatic ties in the wake of the attack.