As rebel fighters move into Chad's capital, N'Djamena, Swiss expatriates living there are beginning to be evacuated by French forces along with other foreigners.
Hundreds of rebels penetrated the city on Saturday, clashing with government troops and moving on the presidential palace after a three-day advance across the central African nation.
Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French military spokesman, said groups of rebels gathered outside the capital, N'Djamena, on Friday night before 1,000 to 1,500 fighters entered early in the day and spread through the city.
The United Nations announced that it had decided to evacuate its entire staff from N'Djamena, and the French and American governments told their citizens to assemble in secure locations as witnesses reported looting, gunfire and explosions near government buildings.
France's military has about 1,400 personnel in Chad, about 1,200 of those in the capital. Paris sent more troops late on Thursday to boost its military presence in Chad.
These troops will cover any evacuation of foreigners, including Swiss nationals according to the Swiss foreign ministry, which is in close contact with the French authorities.
All 80 expatriates living in N'Djamena had reached one of three assembly points on Saturday as they waited to find out if they must leave. Eleven were among the first foreigners flown out in the evening towards Gabon.
The other 40 Swiss known to be living in Chad do not reside near combat zones. Most of the Swiss expatriates work for the International Committee of the Red Cross, non-governmental organisations or are missionaries.
The ministry has set up a crisis team to handle any problems that may crop up. Switzerland does however not have an embassy in Chad and must rely on the employees of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation's coordination bureau in N'Djamena.
The Swiss government has paid particular attention to the needs of expatriates in crisis zones since 2004. The foreign ministry was accused at the time of not doing enough for Swiss nationals living in Ivory Coast who were caught in the crossfire between government forces and rebels.
The French authorities have organised flights to leave Chad, and Swiss expatriates, like other foreigners, will be able to board these aircraft if they wish to. The rebels have already announced they will do nothing to hinder an evacuation.
Markus Börlin, head of the crisis team, said on Saturday in Bern that expatriates could also evacuated by land, but he refused to give further details for security reasons.
Rebel troops had been advancing on the capital for three days in about 250 pickup trucks from the direction of the border with Sudan, some 820 kilometres to the east of N'Djamena.
Clashes broke out Friday morning near Massakori, about 50 to 80 kilometres northeast of the capital and moved closer to the capital, according to the French army.
Chad, a French colony until 1960, has been convulsed by civil wars and invasions since independence, and the recent discovery of oil has only increased the intensity of the struggle for power in the largely desert country.
The most recent series of rebellions began in 2005 in the country's east, occurring at the same time as the conflict in neighbouring Sudan's western region of Darfur saw a rise in violence. One Chadian rebel group launched a failed assault on N'djamena, in April 2006.
swissinfo with agencies
Chad has a small population - nine million inhabitants - despite its relatively large size - 1,284,000 square kilometres or more than 30 times bigger than Switzerland.
A former French colony, its borders where drawn up by Africa's colonial powers. Its policies tend to influenced by Paris or its northern neighbour Libya.
In recent times, Chad has suffered from revolts in the north, bloody battles and numerous attempts to overthrow the central government. In 1990, the current president Idriss Déby deposed Hissène Habré.
Déby has accused neighbouring Sudan of backing rebel movements. Chad has also had to deal with the arrival of 235,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur region.
Swiss development aid
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has been present in Chad since 1965. It has been a priority country since 1993.
The SDC cooperation office is based in the capital, N'Djamena. It works with local workers who are distributed throughout the country.
Aid projects are in the areas of agricultural and livestock production, basic education for adults and children and in the health sector.
Switzerland's aid budget for Chad is SFr14.5 million last year, including SFr3.5 million for humanitarian aid in refugee camps.
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