N'DJAMENA (Reuters) - Chad's military repelled rebels from a key border town in northern Central African Republic this week, days after the rebel fighters seized it, officials in both countries said on Wednesday.
The African Union said the flare-up in fighting around the town of Birao in recent days had killed several civilians and threatened to complicate preparations for much-delayed elections in CAR, now due in January.
"We affirm that the Chadian army has exercised its right of pursuit by destroying the remaining mercenaries... in the town of Birao," Chad's Army Chief of Staff, General Djionadji, told a news conference late on Tuesday.
A spokesman for the CPJP rebel group said Chadian helicopters and tanks crossed the border from Chad to bombard the town and that rebel fighters retreated on Tuesday.
"We simply evacuated the town because the civilian population, including women and children, were in the process of being killed," CPJP spokesman and commander Issene Abdoulaye told Reuters by telephone.
Djionadji denied women and children were killed in the raid. No details of casualties were available.
The CPJP rebels, who unlike other rebel groups in CAR have not signed peace accords with President Francois Bozize, seized Birao last week and said they were targeting the capital Bangui far to the south.
A Chad-based U.N. peacekeeping force had handed control of Birao over to state authorities on November 15 as its mission to protect civilians in the two countries comes to an end.
AU President Jean Ping condemned the fighting and called on politicians to work to ensure presidential and legislative elections due in January are not derailed.
Rebel clashes and problems over funding in the former French colony have delayed elections three times already, leaving Bozize in power beyond his initial mandate which ended in June.
Central African Republic is rich in minerals but has been caught up in the conflicts of neighbouring Chad, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.