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CRISIS PROFILE-What's going on in Sudan's Darfur?
By Daniel Flynn
N'DJAMENA, April 23 (Reuters) - Sudan's security forces helped recruit rebels, including child soldiers, from refugee camps in Darfur for a revolt in neighbouring Chad, rebel prisoners told African Union investigators.
Some of the fighters being trained in the conflict-torn western Sudanese Darfur region were as young as 12, one rebel commander captured in N'Djamena told an AU team at the weekend.
A delegation from the 53-nation African grouping is visiting Chad to investigate President Idriss Deby's accusations that Sudan organised, financed and armed an April 13 assault on N'Djamena by rebels seeking to end his nearly 16-year rule.
Khartoum has denied helping the insurgents' bid to seize power in the landlocked central African oil producer before a May 3 election in which Deby is seeking a third term.
Meeting some of 200 captured rebel prisoners at N'Djamena's central police station, the AU investigators heard how rebel leaders met Sudanese intelligence officers in Khartoum.
"The Sudanese intelligence people were our contacts ... they were always dressed in civilian clothing," Colonel Adoum Maratis, a captured rebel commander who said he came from Central African Republic, told reporters.
"We were given transport, communications. We were well equipped," Maratis said, adding that around 1,200 fighters in 75 pick-up trucks were involved in the attack on N'Djamena.
Maratis said he was recruited four months ago in Khartoum at a meeting with rebel chief Mahamat Nour.
Nour, an ex-Chadian army capitain, leads the rebel United Front for Democratic Change (FUC) and was seeking experienced officers to launch a rebellion against Deby.
Maratis travelled to training camps in Sudan's Darfur region, where he said some 7,000 rebel fighters were gathered to wage rebellion against Deby's rule.
Some recruits trained were as young as 12 years old, Maratis said. Several of the prisoners were small boys, who looked dazed by their experience and said they had been recruited by force.
Deby has cut diplomatic ties with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's government, closed the border and called for an international force to occupy Darfur to prevent regional chaos.
Several prisoners said they had been press-ganged into joining the rebels at refugee camps in Sudan's Darfur region, where a fierce political and ethnic conflict since 2003 has killed tens of thousands and is spilling over into Chad.
Maratis said the majority of rebel fighters were from Chad, although a few prisoners said they were Sudanese.
"I was recruited by Sudan. I was visiting my family in a refugee camp (in Darfur), when I was approached by Sudanese military authorities and recruited by force," said Said Ibrahim Isaac, dressed in military fatigues.
"We were told to get on the trucks. We were not told we were going to Chad," said another prisoner.
The FUC rebels raced 800 km (500 miles) in three days to attack the capital at dawn. Several hundred people were killed before the Chadian army repelled the assault.
Hassane Mostar Hassane, a Chadian FUC captain, said he was recruited three years ago in Sudan.
"Our arms were provided by Sudan, lots of different kinds of arms," he said in Arabic via a translator.
Chad's political opposition, which is boycotting the May 3 poll, say Deby is using Sudan's alleged involvement with the rebels to distract attention from rising domestic opposition.
"It is obvious Sudan helps the rebels. But you must remember ... (the government) supports rebels in Sudan," said Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, spokesman for a 20-party opposition coalition.
Pressured by his Zaghawa ethnic clan which straddles the Sudanese border, Deby has helped Darfur rebel groups opposed to the government in Khartoum, such as the Justice and Equality Movement which keeps representatives in N'Djamena, human rights groups and the Chadian opposition say.