Amid conflicting reports on the scale of Libyan attacks on the Chadian town of Faya Largeau, France indicated yesterday that further Libyan involvement in the African country's civil war could lead to direct French military intervention.
Speaking in a Paris television interview, Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson said that "if Libya pursues its intervention in Chad, internationalizing the conflict, there will be consequences." He added that France "cannot be indifferent" to Libya's role in Chad.
Cheysson's statement was by far the most substantive indication to date that France may respond to appeals by Chadian President Hissene Habre, and the strong desire of the United States, to take a more active role in Chad. In a reflection of the unease President Francois Mitterrand's government has felt over escalating its role, it followed by only one day comments by Defense Minister Charles Hernu that France would not offer assistance "outside the framework" of a 1976 military agreement it has with Chad.
Although France has supplied millions of dollars in arms and other military aid to Habre's embattled government, it has interpreted the 1976 accord as applying only to logistical support and repeatedly has denied Habre's requests for direct involvement in the form of aircraft and pilots. While Hernu's comments Sunday were widely interpreted as reiterating this refusal, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy said yesterday that Hernu had not intended to rule out the dispatch of French aircraft.
"This is something that is being left in the air," said spokeswoman Danielle Spengler. "The statement made by the defense minister did not refer to the aircraft."
The Reagan administration informed Congress yesterday that it had deployed two AWACS surveillance aircraft and eight F15 fighters in Sudan to assist "friendly governments" in the area.
The White House, which has encouraged France to take the lead in fighting the Libyan-backed rebels, expressed satisfaction with France's hardening line.
Meanwhile, government officials in Ndjamena, Chad's capital, said six Libyan aircraft conducted three raids on the embattled outpost of Faya Largeau yesterday, according to The Associated Press and United Press International. However, reports from Reuter said the fighting has lessened during the past few days, and officials at the U.S. State Department said they had no confirmation of renewed Libyan air attacks.
Libya has denied that it is providing more than logistic support to the rebel forces led by Goukouni Oueddei, Chad's former president. However, Chadian authorities in Ndjamena presented a man to reporters yesterday who they claimed was the pilot of a Libyan plane shot down over Faya Largeau on Friday. Identified as Abdul Salim Charfadine, the man said he led a 12-plane squadron of Soviet Sukhoi fighter-bombers on daily raids on Faya Largeau.
Speaking in Arabic and English, the man said Libyan aircraft had conducted between 40 and 50 raids on Faya Largeau last week using 250- and 500-pound bombs and napalm. He also said that Libyan ground forces are supplying munitions and transportation to Goukouni's troops.
"The Libyan Air Force intervened to prepare the way for a ground attack, which should take place soon," the man told the press conference at the Palace of Congress.
The official Libyan news agency JANA said the Libyan presented in Ndjamena Monday has been a prisoner since 1981.
French statements yesterday leaving the door open to dispatching to Chad Jaguar aircraft stationed at several French bases in Africa are seen as significant in light of recent developments. As Goukouni's rebel forces continue to receive Libyan support and threaten Habre's regime, Paris is being pressured heavily by the U.S. government and some African countries to supply fighter aircraft and pilots to stem the rebel gains. But having campaigned against the interventionist policies of his predecessors, Mitterrand is trying to retain a credible position of support for France's African allies without resorting to direct military intervention.
Mitterrand faces stiff domestic opposition, particularly from elements of his Socialist Party, to direct military intervention.
Washington sources said a decline in Habre's military situation could give Mitterrand an excuse to intervene with French planes and pilots. However, Spengler, the French Embassy spokeswoman, said France will not send ground troops to Chad. "There is no way that we will send French soldiers to participate in combat," she said.