Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor, the Communications Minister, told a press  briefing on Wednesday that "a coup attempt was foiled between the afternoon of Tuesday 14 March and today" when Idriss Deby, the President, had been due home from a  summit in Equatorial Guinea.

The "masterminds" of the plot were the twins Tom and Timane Erdimi, nephews of Deby and former chiefs of his civilian personal staff, who joined the exiled opposition in December, and renegade former general Seby Aguid, who defected to a rebel movement in February, Doumgor said.

Prosecutors and security forces have opened a probe to track  down all those involved and determine their roles in the coup bid.

The army had been tipped off, Doumgor said.

Security forces were out in strength on Wednesday morning in an otherwise quiet Ndjamena, mobile phone links were cut, but nobody reported any  gunfire during the night, an AFP journalist said.

"Those who escaped fled in seven vehicles, of which two were intercepted and the occupants neutralised," Doumgor said, without being more specific about their fate.

Destablising aims

The aim of the plotters was to detabilise the regime and then  assassinate Deby by shooting down his plane when he returned from a  six-nation summit of the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC).

However, on being told of the plot, Deby cut short his trip to  Equatorial Guinea and "returned to Ndjamena last (Tuesday) night and  personally took charge of things to restore order," the official spokesman said.

Security forces are out in
strength

Deby, a former guerrilla leader, himself first came to power in  a coup in December 1990. Six years later he won the sub-Saharan nation's first multi-party presidential election since independence from France in 1960.

He faces a rebel insurgency mounted by a movement in the east on  the border with Sudan, the region from which he launched his power  grab. His rebel foes include military men mainly from his own ethnic group, the Zaghawa.

They have formed a Foundation for Change, National Unity and  Democracy (SCUD) to overthrow him.

Defectors

On 10 March, Deby cashiered 70 defectors, including General Aguid and other senior officers, in a decree that booted them out of the army and cancelled pay and their pension and bonus rights.

Aguid and a fellow general had been sent in February to bring about the surrender of the rebels, but instead defected, according to the government.

Deby vowed during a re-election campaign in 2001 to stand down  at the end of his second term. But in the first week of March a congress of his Patriotic Movement of Salvation (MPS) chose him as its candidate for a third term and he said he was happy to stand in  an election due next May.