PARIS - The European Union said yesterday that it had postponed the deployment of a peacekeeping force to protect Darfur refugees because of an upsurge of rebel activity in neighboring Chad.
The rebels numbered 1,500 to 2,000 and had automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. They moved toward the Chadian capital in as many as 250 pickup trucks, according to Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the French Defense Ministry.
Government troops blocked them at the capital's eastern and northern entrances Thursday night, France-Info radio reported. Fighting broke out yesterday morning in Massaguet, some 30 miles northeast of the capital, it said.
In Paris, a spokesman for the EU's military mission said a plane carrying 54 special forces from Ireland was canceled Thursday evening because of the rebel offensive.
The peacekeeping mission was due to be up and running early next month, said Commandant Dan Harvey, speaking at the EU military headquarters in Paris. The deployment of the advance force could be postponed for days, he said.
The force is aimed at protecting refugees from the conflict-racked Sudanese region of Darfur, as well as protecting Chadians and Central Africans displaced by turmoil in their own countries.
Harvey said about 70 EU troops already are on the ground in Chad, setting up bases for an EU force that eventually is to total 3,700.
A top Sudanese official said the unrest in Chad was not connected to the violence across the border in Darfur, and disputed Chadian charges that Sudan was backing the rebels.
"We consider what is going on in Chad as an internal problem," said Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem, Sudan's ambassador to the UN. "The problems of Chad are not because of Darfur."
But Irish Defense Minister Willie O'Dea, speaking yesterday, said the rebels appeared to have Sudanese backing.
"There is military conflict between the government forces and the rebels, who are no doubt supported by the Sudanese," O'Dea said. "Who is getting the upper hand will not be clear for some time yet."
EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel said he "firmly condemned any attempt to take power by force" and called on "countries with influence over the rebels" to press for restraint.