KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Chad refused entry to a Darfur rebel leader on his way back to the battlefield on Wednesday, ordering him to return to Libya after a 19-hour diplomatic standoff at the country's main airport.
Chadian officials had stopped Khalil Ibrahim, the head of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), when he flew into the Chadian capital N'Djamena from Libya at 1 a.m. (8 p.m. ET).
They destroyed the passports of everyone in his party and ordered him to return to Tripoli, Ibrahim said.
The showdown was a major setback for the rebel group which in the past had strong links with Chad's leadership and regularly used the country as a base for its troops and a transit point for its officials.
"He is in the air," top JEM official al-Tahir al-Feki told Reuters, adding he was returning to Tripoli after 19 hours on board a Libyan Afriqiyah airlines plane.
"We are still hopeful he will be able to return to the field," he added.
Libya also shares a border with Darfur.
Ibrahim said there was a "conspiracy" between the Chadian government and international mediators to force JEM to return to floundering Qatar-hosted peace talks with Sudan's government.
Chad's Interior Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bachir said his country did not want JEM passing through:
"We have re-established relations with Sudan so we cannot allow these undesirable people to pass through Chad," he said.
Khartoum has long accused Chad of supporting and arming JEM during the seven-year conflict. But the oil-producing countries began a rapprochement at the end of 2009, and in February Chad brokered a ceasefire and an initial peace deal between JEM and Sudan's government.
JEM is one of two rebel groups that took up arms against Sudan's government in 2003, accusing it of neglecting the remote western region of Darfur and marginalizing its population.
The movement is dominated by the Zaghawa tribe, who live in Darfur and neighboring Chad. Ibrahim has close family links to Chadian President Idriss Deby. JEM also helped Deby fight back two rebel attacks on N'Djamena.
In a statement, Sudan praised the Chadian move against Ibrahim and said it showed Deby's commitment to the agreement not to allow any armed rebel movement to use its territory to launch attacks on Sudan.
"(Khalil Ibrahim) headed toward N'Djamena with no prior arrangements with the Chadian government," the statement added.
Ibrahim said that he refused to be flown to Qatar as proposed by the U.N.-African Union mediation of the faltering Darfur talks.
JEM this month suspended its participation in the talks, accusing Khartoum of bombing civilians, and the sides have clashed heavily in Darfur.
"They are trying to hijack me and force me to fly back to (Qatar's capital) Doha," Ibrahim said. "But we already signed two agreements and the government breached both those agreements and they are fighting us."
No one was immediately available to comment from the mediation team.
Sudan has asked Interpol to circulate an arrest warrant for Ibrahim in connection with a JEM attack on Khartoum in 2008.
(Reporting by Andrew Heavens, Opheera McDoom and Moumine
Ngarmbassa in N'Djamena; editing by Ralph Boulton)