Chadian Information Minister Mahamat Soumaila praised French President Francois Mitterrand today "for his firm stand in support of Chad," but brushed off Mitterrand's suggestion that France might support a federation of the rebel-occupied and government-controlled sections of the country, an idea that Chadian President Hissene Habre has long opposed.
Soumaila's comments followed publication yesterday in the Paris newspaper Le Monde of an interview with Mitterrand about France's involvement in the Chadian war.
In the interview, Mitterrand alleviated a major worry of Habre's government by ruling out French support for the partition of this war-wracked Central African country. But the French president indicated he could support a federation of Chad's Moslem north, now occupied by Libyan troops and Libyan-backed rebels, and the animist and Christian south.
Mitterrand also appeared to be warning Libya that French troops recently sent here will not restrict themselves to being a defensive bulwark for Habre's government if they are attacked. The most recent fighting between Habre's forces and the rebels led by former president Goukouni Oueddei began in June and stopped Aug. 12 after France sent troops to assist the Habre government. There has been no formal cease-fire.
Earlier this week, Mitterrand sent envoys to Tripoli to meet with officials of the government of Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi and to Addis Ababa to see Ethiopian head of state Mengistu Haile Mariam, who is chairman of the Organization of African Unity. The visits were seen as the beginning of French initiatives for a negotiated peace.
French Defense Minister Charles Hernu arrived in Ndjamena last night, and met with Habre for an hour this morning. It is thought that part of his mission here, besides emphasizing France's support for Habre, is to dissuade Habre from launching an attack against the combined rebel-Libyan forces in an effort to embroil France deeper in the conflict before the French peace initiatives have time to work. Information Minister Soumaila repeatedly has said that his government's major interest is to retake Chadian territory held by the rebels and Libyans.
Soumaila told reporters that Mitterrand "is to be congratulated for his firm stand in support of Chad and his vigorous insistence on the sovereignty and independence of all states, particularly Chad."
When reporters asked Soumaila about his government's rejection a year ago of any idea of a federation as a solution to this country's 18-year civil war, Soumaila smiled, saying, "This is not the most essential aspect" of Mitterrand's interview with Le Monde.
"These ideas do not interest us," added the minister.
On Mitterrand's warning that the more than 2,000 French troops here might retaliate against Libyan forces if fired on, Soumaila expressed only one minor disappointment.
"We consider that France is following a rather wise policy in this respect, although we believe Mr. Mitterrand may not have been sufficiently categorical in saying that France may one day choose to adopt a more combative attitude when the situation requires it," he said.
Habre's government, Soumaila said earlier this week, had asked Mitterrand's government to provide it with air cover for a government counteroffensive against the Libyan-occupied forward position at Faya Largeau.
France flew eight combat jets to Ndjamena this week, but military spokesmen said they would be used only to "defend French soldiers." The French military spokesman here has refused to discuss whether France would provide Habre's forces with the requested air cover. Mitterrand did not address the subject in the interview, saying he preferred to seek a peaceful settlement.