N'DJAMENA, Chad &

Chad's capital was mostly quiet today but rebels seeking to oust the president kept to the fringes of the city and threatened a fresh attack. France said it was prepared to intervene militarily to help the government repel the assault if necessary.




The rebels battled army forces Saturday in the capital N'Djamena before drawing back Sunday. Scattered gunfire was heard today, but the rebels appeared to be holding back around the edge of the city, French military spokesman Capt. Christophe Prazuck said.




Chad's government has accused neighboring Sudan of backing the rebels to prevent the deployment of a European peacekeeping force in a region along their border where more than 400,000 refugees are living. A Chadian official declared the fighting a "direct war" with the Sudanese president.




The death toll from four days of violence was not known, but more than 1,000 were reported wounded, and tens of thousands were fleeing across the border to Cameroon.




Bodies lay on the streets of N'Djamena which were also littered with the hulks of burned out tanks and other abandoned vehicles.




The fighting is the latest chapter in the oil-rich African country's long-standing conflict. It has threatened to further destabilize an already violent swath of Africa that borders Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur region.




On Monday, the U.N. Security Council authorized France and other nations to help Chad's government. France has 1,900 soldiers backed by fighter jets in its former colony, said Prazuck.




French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France was ready to launch a military operation against the rebels if necessary.




"If France must do its duty, it will do so," Sarkozy told reporters in La Rochelle, France, in response to a question on a possible French military operation in Chad. "Let no one doubt it."




But French Foreign Minister Kouchner stressed that France had no intention for the time being of stepping up its operations, "especially since peace seems to be on the agenda more than it was two days ago."




Allam-mi said his country had been successfully fighting the rebels, "and for the moment, we don't need extra help."




Officials from the Republic of Congo and Libya were to arrive Tuesday on an African Union mediation mission, the republic's Foreign Affairs Minister Basile Ikouebe said Monday in Brazzaville. They will meet with both sides, and France has agreed to protect the mediators, he said.




Rebel chief Mahamat Nouri told French radio Europe-1 that French aircraft had been firing on the rebels from Sunday night until early Tuesday.




"It's French aviation that is bombarding us," he said. Nouri said the rebels were ready to launch a new offensive and said they would be in a position to take the capital except for the French army.




Prazuck said there was "not the slightest reality" to the charge, saying the French removed all their planes from N'Djamena early Sunday to protect them and that the only aircraft they had in the area were helicopters used to protect convoys or in evacuations.




Sarkozy also said French troops not been involved in the fighting except last Friday night, when they opened fire to protect French civilians. He said that was a case of self-defense.




Sarkozy dismissed as "absolutely not exact" rebel claims that French forces had killed civilians.




Chadian officials have repeatedly accused Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir of supporting the rebels, and even deploying Sudanese troops in rebel offensives in eastern Chad.




"We are in direct war with Omar Bashir," Gen. Mahamat Ali Abdallah Nassour said Tuesday on Radio France Internationale.




Some 1,000-1,500 insurgents equipped with pickup trucks mounted with machine guns arrived on the city's outskirts Friday after a three-day push across the desert from Chad's eastern border with Sudan. They entered the city early Saturday, reportedly trapping President Idriss Deby in his palace.




Government soldiers launched a fierce counterattack Sunday, strafing rebel positions with helicopter gunships and bombarding them with tank cannons. By early Monday, the rebels had pulled back, insisting it was a tactical withdrawal to give civilians a chance to get away.




Thousands fled across the Chari River into Cameroon, though estimates varied widely, with the U.N. putting it at up to 20,000 and U.S. charity World Vision at about 300,000 of N'djamena's 700,000 people.




"As of this morning, frightened people were still crossing in a continuous flow," Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency told reporters in Geneva.




French soldiers used armored vehicles to evacuate French nationals and other foreigners over the weekend. About 1,000 foreigners had been evacuated by Tuesday, with 245 remaining under French protection at their military camp or other protected sites, Prazuck said.




Human Rights Watch said it had reports that Chadian security forces were detaining political opposition leaders, "using the fighting as a pretext for settling scores with the unarmed opposition," according to acting Africa director, Georgette Gagnon.




The violence endangers a $300 million global aid operation supporting millions in Chad. The U.N.'s World Food Program said it could disrupt delivery of food to 420,000 Darfur refugees and Chadians displaced by violence.




Deby rose to power just as the rebels are trying to, heading an insurgent force that captured N'Djamena in 1990. He has won two elections since then, neither considered free or fair, but has enjoyed strong French support.




The rebels are a coalition of three groups whose leaders include Mahamat Nouri, a former defense minister, and Timan Erdimi, a nephew of Deby who was his chief of staff. They accuse Deby of corruption and embezzling millions in oil revenue.




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Associated Press writers John Leicester in Paris, Alexander G. Higgins and Frank Jordans in Geneva, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Rosenberg, Michelle Faul and Heidi Vogt in Nairobi contributed to this report.