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Red Cross officials survey the capital for civilian casualties.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in a coup attempt by rebels in Chad, Red Cross officials said Tuesday. Soldiers blocked two bridges crossing into neighboring Cameroon, cutting off an escape route for thousands.

France said it was prepared to intervene militarily to help the government repel the insurgents if necessary. But the government said its forces had pushed the rebels back from the capital, and it needed no foreign help.

The Red Cross officials, who were driving around the capital N'Djamena looking for casualties, said they did not have an exact toll. But they said "hundreds of civilians" have died in fighting since rebels penetrated the capital on Saturday. Most were killed by bullets, according to the officials, who said they were too scared to give their names.

Chadian soldiers blocked two bridges that thousands had been using to flee to Cameroon. A local reporter at the scene watched frightened civilians turned back by troops on Tuesday afternoon. The U.N. refugee agency says some 20,000 residents of the capital have fled to Cameroon since Monday.

Scattered gunfire rang out around N'Djamena, but the rebels who battled the army over the weekend were keeping to the edges of the city, French military spokesman Capt. Christophe Prazuck said.

Chad's Foreign Minister Ahmad Allam-mi said the rebels had been chased to 30 miles outside N'Djamena.

"N'Djamena is calm," Allam-mi told reporters in Paris after talks with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "I think they are awaiting some reinforcements, but all threat to the security of the city of N'Djamena can now be put aside."

Chad's government has accused neighboring Sudan of backing the rebels to prevent the deployment of a European peacekeeping force in a region along their border where more than 400,000 refugees are living. A Chadian official declared the fighting a "direct war" with the Sudanese president.

The Red Cross said more than 1,000 people were wounded. Bodies lay on the streets, which were also littered with the hulks of burned-out tanks and other abandoned vehicles.

The European Union said Tuesday it was sending $2.9-million in humanitarian aid to help refugees fleeing the fighting in Chad.

The fighting is the latest chapter in the oil-rich African country's long-standing conflict. It has threatened to further destabilize an already violent swath of Africa that borders Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur region.

Fast facts

U.N. staff leaves

The United Nations has evacuated most of its staff from Chad because of safety concerns, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said Tuesday. "I am alarmed by the deteriorating security situation in the capital, N'Djamena, and elsewhere," he said. "We can no longer guarantee the safety and security of U.N. staff in Chad, and we have evacuated, with the help of the French government, most of the personnel into neighboring countries, in Cameroon and Gabon." Ban said he was leaving a small number of U.N. peacekeepers and other personnel in Chad's capital, and that the United Nations would do as much as it could to help resolve the crisis. "I welcome the initiative of the African Union to have designated leaders of Libya and the Republic of Congo to mediate," he said.

Associated Press