Violent clashes on the Chad-Sudan border between militia fighters allied to Khartoum and Chadian government forces have revived long-harboured fears that the 16-month conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region could spread into Chad.
A Chad military official said Thursday that members of the Arab Janjawid militia, who, fighting for Khartoum, have been blamed for the bulk of atrocities committed against inhabitants in Darfur, fought Chadian troops in Birak, a town 10 kilometers (six miles) inside Chad from the border with Sudan.
The official, who requested anonymity, said 69 Janjawid militiamen - the name means 'guns on horseback' - were killed and two taken prisoner in the fighting. He did not give figures for any losses among Chadian troops.
"There is a hidden force trying to export the conflict between the Sudanese into Chad," said Allami Ahmat, diplomatic advisor to Chadian President Idriss Deby, in Ndjamena on Thursday.
"Chadian Arab tribes are being drawn into the adventure on the side of the Janjawid," said Ahmat, accusing Khartoum's allies of "seeking to transpose the war to Chad."
"We demand that the Sudanese government neutralise this armed militia, which is recruiting among Chadian Arabs," he said.
But, said a diplomat in Ndjamena: "These fears are not new. We have for a long time harboured many fears for Chad."
War broke out in Darfur in February 2003 when black African rebel groups, complaining of the marginalisation of their region and a lack of protection for local people, rose up against the Sudan government.
The government's response was to give the Janjawid a free rein in cracking down on the rebels, and since the conflict broke out, Khartoum's proxy militia hase been accused of conducting a scorched earth campaign and ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
At least 10,000 people have been killed in Darfur - many believe the toll is grossly underestimated - one million displaced and at least 120,000 refugees have poured into Chad from the ravaged region in western Sudan.
The presence of the refugees in eastern Chad, where the majority of inhabitants are from black African ethnic groups, as are the rebels in Darfur, has left the border region vulnerable to attacks by the Janjawid.
The Chadian government, which on April 8 brokered a peace pact for Darfur under which the parties to the conflict agreed to stop fighting, to guarantee safe passage for humanitarian aid to the stricken region, free prisoners of war and disarm militias, last month demanded that Khartoum rein in the Janjawid.
The demand came days after Janjawid fighters launched an attack inside Chad, the second in a week, in flagrant violation of the ceasefire.
At least one civilian was killed in the attacks, and the Janjawid also looted villages and clashed with Chadian border guards, a member of the Chadian mediation team said.
"Sudan, which is a friend and brother of Chad, must take all steps to control this militia which is attacking Chad," Chadian President Idriss Deby said in a statement broadcast on May 6 on national radio.
Amnesty International has said in a report on Darfur that the conflict in the western part of Sudan "has sparked tensions between Chadian groups who have the same ethnic origins as people in Darfur, and who previously co-existed in Chad."
Fuelling Ndjamena's fears is the fact that many a Chadian rebellion, including the one that brought Deby to power in 1990, began in Darfur and had Khartoum's blessing.