Is Darfur Crossing Borders?

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Africa's wars have a terrible habit of spilling across borders. To diplomats in Sudan, it seemed only a matter of time before the brutal three-year-old conflict in the country's Darfur province followed suit, posing particular risk to landlocked, unstable Chad to the west. And indeed, this morning, residents of Chadís capital, NíDjamena, woke up to find a small group of rebels trying to enter the city and battling government soldiers street by street. The gunfire and shelling began at dawn and, according to a BBC reporter in NíDjamena, lasted two hours before the government troops overpowered the attackers, who nevertheless promised another raid Thursday night.

The rebels, many of them defectors from Chadís army, have set up camps across the border in lawless Darfur. Chadís President Idriss Deby says Sudanís government in Khartoum backs the rebellion. Sudan denies the accusation and, in turn, says Chad supports Sudanese rebel groups in Darfur. One thing is certain: in October, hundreds of discontented Chadian soldiers deserted their barracks and fled to Darfur. An American military advisor in the region told TIME before Christmas that there were at least 800 well-armed fighters along the border, possibly more. Recent estimates put the figure in the thousands.

The rebels accuse President Deby of running a dictatorship and say they will bring democracy to the country, which has been exploiting its oil riches for just a few years. Successive governments in Chad have put down regular uprisings, but this insurgency seems more serious: the ongoing conflict in Darfur has given the rebels a secure base from which to attack. "Chad is a sister state to Darfur," says Dr. Eltayeb Hag Ateya, the director of the Center for Conflict Research at the University of Khartoum. "All the presidents of Chad are either installed by or forced out by forces that have come from Darfur."

Stopping the violence in Darfur would help. African tribal groups there took up arms against the government in Khartoum three years ago. The government responded by arming thousands of Arab janjaweed militias who have wreaked havoc on African soldiers and villagers alike, killed tens of thousands of people and forced 2 million from their homes. The U.S. describes the campaign as genocide, but for the past two years the world has been content to let a 7,000-strong force from the African Union police what the United Nations describes as one of the two worst humanitarian disasters in the world today (the other is in the Congo). The African troops patrol an area the size of Texas, have a limited mandate and little money. The U.N. says it may send its own peacekeeping force to Sudan, perhaps with the help of NATO military advisers, but troops are unlikely to arrive before the end of this year. So far, Khartoum says it will refuse to allow them in.

And so the fighting continues — and spreads. Earlier this year, Libya brokered a non-belligerence pact between Chad and Sudan. But soon after the leader of the Chadian rebels, Mohammad Nour, 35, told TIME it "is not serious" Sitting on the outskirts of a camp along the Chad-Sudan border under the shade of a mango tree he contemplated his next move. "Iím not going to be under these trees much longer," he said.