French President Francois Mitterrand called today for a negotiated settlement to Chad's civil war and hinted that France might favor a federation between rebel-held territory in the north and government-controlled areas in the south.
In an interview with the daily newspaper Le Monde, Mitterrand gave his first public accounting of French policy in the Chadian crisis since Libyan-backed rebels launched their offensive two months ago.
The embattled government has been at war with Libyan-backed rebel forces led by former president Goukouni Oueddei since late June. In early August, France intervened with French paratroops bringing the war to a stop with a tacit cease-fire since Aug. 12.
Mitterrand also sought to play down his differences with the Reagan administration over the conflict, saying that "I think everything is back in order now."
Now that nearly 2,000 French military "instructors" have established a strategic bulwark shielding the southern half of Chad from further rebel assaults, Mitterrand explained that his government has sought to engender a military stalemate that would prod the antagonists toward a peaceful solution.
He said the French forces were largely responsible for the respite in fighting throughout Chad for the past two weeks and warned that France has now "installed the means to respond militarily and quickly to any new offensive."
"Of course, this initial result could be thwarted at any time," he said. "But the troops put in place by France give France the means, if necessary, to respond to those who would prefer war to peace and the rule of law."
For the first time, Mitterrand indicated that France might support a federation of the Moslem north with the Christian and animist south, saying that "a federation often conforms to reality more than a formal unity always broken."
But he ruled out any partition of Chad, claiming that such a division of the country "would lead to a tragic period of instability for all of Africa."
In Chad, Information Minister Mahamat Soumaila said his government would have no response on Mitterrand's policy "until we have received the full text," Washington Post correspondent Leon Dash reported from Ndjamena. President Hissene Habre recalled the charge d'affaires in Paris for urgent consultations.
Mitterrand's words reflected a clear warning to the rebel forces of ousted president Goukouni and their Libyan patron, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, that France will not tolerate any further aggression.
At the same time, Mitterrand sought to discourage pleas from Habre that France should "go to war" and help him carry out a counteroffensive to regain the northern half of the country.
In the interview, the transcript of which Le Monde reported was carefully edited by the president, Mitterrand explained that he waited for several weeks before dispatching French forces because he wanted to be absolutely certain that "the will of war and domination" was being carried out by Libya and not France.
Mitterrand's reluctance to become embroiled in the conflict created consternation within the Reagan administration, which urged an assertive response by France to thwart Qaddafi's ambitions to seize control of Chad.
The French president, in a background talk with Le Monde last week, expressed his irritation with "pressures" from Washington and took issue with administration claims that France was closely consulted when the United States sent two Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar planes to Sudan to help monitor the civil war in Chad.
In today's interview, Mitterrand took pains to downplay any friction with the Reagan administration.
"Let's say that we did not ignore the Americans and they were very concerned with us, yes, a lot," Mitterrand said. "We had meetings. We talked. Reagan wrote me. I answered."
He also confirmed reports that U.S. ambassador-at-large Vernon Walters paid him an "urgent" visit early this month. Walters reportedly met with Mitterrand in early August, when the AWACS planes were dispatched to the region.
Mitterrand sought to quash further talk of feuding between Paris and Washington by saying the controversy was blown out of proportion. "I think everything is back in order now," he added.
Mitterrand stressed repeatedly that he hoped to see the military stalemate move into the realm of peace negotiations, perhaps with the Organization of African Unity acting as mediator.
The most useful negotiating situation would be one that "gathered all Chadians around the table," an ideal he said France would continue working to achieve.
In his answers, Mitterrand eschewed any harsh words against Qaddafi, apparently intent on keeping channels open to Libya for future negotiations.
Asked what he thought were Qaddafi's intentions in aiding the rebel drive, Mitterrand responded:
"It seems that [Libya's] immediate concern is to guarantee, if not expand, at least its southern border. If it could easily advance farther south, it would not miss that chance."