, NDJAMENA, May 18 – Chad said it had carried out a major military incursion deep into Sudanese territory and claimed to have destroyed several rebel camps.
It was the first official confirmation that Chad had sent ground troops into neighbouring Sudan to pursue rebels routed earlier this month as they launched a huge offensive on the Chadian capital Ndjamena.
Khartoum, accused by Chad President Idriss Deby Itno of backing the Sudan-based rebels, had already accused the Chadians of launching air strikes, as the United Nations led international appeals for calm.
"After having pursued the mercenaries into Sudan, exercising our right of pursuit, the defence and security forces pulled back this afternoon," Defence Minister Adoum Younousmi announced outside the presidential palace in Ndjamena.
"We have cleared out all rebel bases up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) inside Sudan. We have destroyed seven regrouping points. The fugitives have been dealt with by the air force with no collateral damage.
"We are no longer going to allow any country to shelter anti-Chadian rebels. No matter how far they go into foreign territory, we are going to destroy them wherever they are," Younousmi declared.
The Union of Forces for the Resistance (UFR), a coalition of rebel factions based in Sudan, launched an offensive on May 4 stating their goal was to take the capital Ndjamena, but Deby’s army counter-attacked and by May 10 was claiming victory.
Deby vowed on Saturday to wipe out the rebels and sought to justify foreign incursions to do so.
"We have used our right to pursue and that right to pursue will continue with the support of the Chadian people," the president said. "The army has decided to finish once and for all with the mercenaries in the pay of Sudan."
Sudan appeared to tone down its rhetoric on Saturday after having earlier threatened a military response.
Sudanese army spokesman Othman al-Aghbash said the conflict "cannot be resolved by military methods, it must be resolved through political means."
On both Friday and Saturday, Sudan accused Chad of carrying out air strikes on its territory.
Chadian government spokesman Mahamat Hissene retorted: "It is decidedly the case of the robber who cries thief."
Hissene said any clashes between the Chadian army and the remaining rebels on the Sudanese border would be "simply the consequence of the attack on Chad organised by Sudan, using mercenaries armed, trained, financed and directed by satellite by the Khartoum regime."
UN deputy secretary general Haile Menkerios urged Chad to take the diplomatic path, in comments to AFP in Addis Ababa.
"The Chadian government should start negotiations with the Chadian rebels, that should happen. There should be a peaceful resolution of the issue between the two countries."
France, the former colonial power in Chad, also expressed its concern, in a foreign ministry statement, and urged the two countries to "avoid any escalation" in the conflict.
Chad has long accused Sudan of supporting rebels seeking to oust Deby, while Khartoum has charged Ndjamena with backing ethnic minority rebels in the western Sudanese province of Darfur.
Peace between Chad and Sudan is regarded as essential to any lasting settlement to the six-year-old conflict in Darfur.