Standoff in the Sahara

BOB LEVIN September 21 1987

Standoff in the Sahara

BOB LEVIN September 21 1987

Standoff in the Sahara


It is called the Aozou Strip, a barren stretch of the Sahara Desert between Chad and Libya. Both countries claim it, although it has been held by Libya for the past 14 years. Then, last month, Chadian troops launched a drive to seize the strip. They occupied its administrative capital, the date-palm oasis town of Aozou. Three weeks later the Libyans struck back, using air power to support ground troops as they retook the town.

That led the Chadians, who have no air force, to change tactics. On Sept.

5 a column of their troops crossed the disputed strip and drove 100 km inside Libya itself. There they destroyed the key Matan as-Sarra airbase and, they claimed, killed 1,730 Libyans. Early last week the Libyans retaliated again, sending Sovietbuilt Tupolev bombers to hit N’Djamena, the Chad capital. But French forces, supporting the Chad government, shot down a Libyan bomber with a U.S.-made Hawk missile —bringing France perilously close to open war with Libya before a ceasefire took effect.

In the shifting sands of the Saharan war, the latest round of fighting marked another stunning victory for the forces of Chad’s President Hissène Habré. It also represented another major embarrassment for Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi, whose involvement has turned a two-decadesold civil war into an international conflict with ominous big-power implications.

The latest events have created a difficult situation for France. While main-

taining a military presence in its former colony, Paris has tried to keep a low profile and avoid a direct confrontation with Libya. Indeed, French Defence Minister André Giraud insisted last week that France “was in no way involved” in the Chadian raid on the

Libyan base, and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac urged the two nations to stop fighting. In fact, at week’s end, responding to an appeal by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), both countries agreed to a ceasefire. But Gadhafi did not withdraw his charge that France bore “direct responsibility” for Chad’s “aggression”—and analysts were openly doubtful that the ceasefire would last.

Meanwhile France found itself at odds with Washington. A state department spokesman implicitly endorsed Chad’s “limited operation” against Gadhafi, traditionally the Reagan ad-

ministration’s foe. “There’s a jingoistic attitude in the White House over this one,” said a senior state department source. “They see it as a good little boy surprisingly getting the best of a big bad bully.” Already this year the United States has given Chad $37 million in military aid, and U.S. sources say that it is now considering sending Stinger antiaircraft missiles. As well, Washington had encouraged Habré to press his offensive, putting France in the unwanted position of backstopping a virtual invasion of Libya. “The French,” said a former U.S. ambassador to a North African country,

“are concerned that the Chadians will overreach themselves and that France will be brought face to face in the conflict.”

A dusty, desperately impoverished nation,

Chad gained its independence in 1960 and has been fighting a civil war for most of the time since then. The fight has pitted Habré’s forces against those of a rival faction led by Goukouni Oueddei, who is allied with Gadhafi. France sided with the Paris-educated Habré, now 45, who came to power in a 1982 coup that was widely reported to have been supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. France currently has about 1,500 troops in Chad—along with Mirage fighters, Jaguar bombers and a battery of antiaircraft missiles—officially to defend against Libyan attacks south of the 16th parallel.

French support clearly helped Habré gain victories earlier this year, when his motorized troops —their heads swathed in burnouses against the stinging Saharan sand—wound north through the desert, taking back territory held by the combined Libyan-rebel forces. One of those triumphs, at Ouadi Doum airbase in March, netted a cache of advanced Sovietbloc weaponry, which Western intelligence officials valued at $1.35 billion and have since been studying.

But while Habré received a red-carpet welcome on a visit to Paris in July, French officials said that they also warned him against invading the Aozou Strip. Libya’s claim to that 43,000square-mile region—which is rich in uranium—is based on a 1935 treaty between France and Italy, which was then Libya’s colonial ruler. The pact was signed but never ratified. Chadians, on the other hand, recognize earlier frontiers agreed to by France and

Britain, Africa’s two main colonizers. That treaty gave the Aozou area to France. As a result, the Chadians say the land belongs to them. French officials agree, but they contend that the issue should be settled by international negotiation.

Habré clearly favors more direct action. After overrunning the Matan asSarra airbase last week, the Chadian military announced that it had destroyed 26 Libyan planes and 70 Sovietmade tanks, and that it had taken 312 prisoners. The base, the communiqué said, “no longer exists.” The Chadians put their own casualties at 65 dead and 112 wounded.

The assault, combined with France’s own shooting down of the Libyan plane two days later, thrust the French government into the forefront of the Chadian crisis. Pierre Haski, a French specialist on Africa, described Habré as “completely unpredictable.” He added: “This is probably the first time France has landed itself with an ally in Africa that doesn’t obey France.” Many French analysts say that Habré was emboldened to defy France by the fact that the United States, his other major ally, supports a more aggressive Chadian campaign. “The Americans wanted Chad, if not France, to serve as a sort of gendarme leading the anti-Gadhafi crusade,” said Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of Foreign Relations, an independent think-tank. “And,” added Moisi, “the Chadians certainly play France off against the United States.”

Behind the U.S. policy is an undisguised desire to destabilize Gadhafi’s government—or at least to keep his troops pinned down in battle. Washington has already sent shoulder-fired heat-seeking Redeye missiles to Chad, and a Pentagon spokesman declined comment on reports that it would soon provide newer, longer-range Stingers. According to U.S. sources, that decision may depend

on France. Pentagon officials, concerned that the sophisticated Stingers might be lost to Libya in battle—and turned over to Moscow intelligence operatives—would feel safer sending them to France’s troops than to Chad’s. If the Libyans step up their air strikes, Washington will likely urge the French to accept the Stingers.

If the ceasefire collapses, experts are divided in predicting what the mercurial Gadhafi will do. After his troops seized the town of Aozou late last month, the Libyan leader denied that he had any designs on Chadian territory. “We have enough desert, mountains and sun,” said Gadhafi, “that we have absolutely no need for the deserts, mountains and sun of Chad.” The remarks were widely interpreted as a response to the war’s growing unpopularity in Libya. An estimated 5,000 Libyan men have died in the Chadian fight this year alone and, with slumping oil exports driving down the Libyan standard of living, the costly war is viewed as a further cause of deprivation.

Still, just before the ceasefire, Libyan planes bombed the town of Faya Largeau in northern Chad. And despite Gadhafi’s conciliatory words, most analysts said that they did not expect him to abandon the battle for long. “He may be winding down some of the military activity for the time being,” said Haski. “But he is stepping up his indirect war with Habré by giving new support to Chadian rebels trying to overthrow Habré’s government.” That can only mean more trouble for Chad and its French supporters. Urged on by their allies in Washington, the French risk slipping into diplomatic quicksand in the Sahara.