French President Francois Mitterrand has avoided a potentially embarrassing diplomatic confrontation with France's African allies over Libya's continuing military presence in Chad.
The two-day summit between Mitterrand and the leaders of French-speaking Africa concluded here yesterday afternoon with no formal statement on Chad.
That was considered a small but important triumph for the French, who had feared a move by some African leaders to force the conference to adopt a statement critical of the Libyan presence.
Such a statement, which had been proposed to the conference Tuesday by Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko, would have implied criticism of the French, who in recent weeks have backed away from their earlier insistence that all Libyan forces be withdrawn.
Intead, the leaders agreed to a mildly worded oral statement thanking France, Zaire and other nations for coming to the aid of the Central African nation after Libya's military invasion last year.
The statement was read to reporters at a press conference by the summit's host, Burundi's President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, while Mitterrand looked on approvingly.
Mitterrand told the press conference that the Chadian government was capable of dealing with its own problems. He reiterated France's commitment to send its troops back to Chad if Libyan-backed forces cross south over the 16th Parallel.
"This is the limit where we have stopped and where we will stop any intrusion," he said.
Diplomatic sources said Mitterrand privately had expressed a stronger line to the moderate African leaders including Mobutu and Chadian President Hissene Habre, pledging a full-fledged diplomatic initiative to persuade Libya to withdraw.
France withdrew its 3,500 troops from Chad in October and November, following a mutual withdrawal accord with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. But the United States later revealed -- and the French then admitted -- that the Libyans had reneged on their part of the agreement.
It is believed that as many as 5,000 Libyan troops remain in northern Chad, along with bombers, tanks and artillery.
Nonetheless, France, seeking to avoid another military confrontation with Qaddafi, has refused to return its troops to Chad. The decision alarmed many of the moderate African leaders here, who fear that their own territories are vulnerable to Libyan intervention.
One of those who has been most critical, Chad's Habre, sounded a conciliatory note with reporters following the conclusion of the summit. Habre thanked France for its past support and denied that there had been any misunderstanding between his government and Paris.
"It is quite normal that France has its own views on the question and that we Chadians, who are the victims, have our own views," he said.
Habre said he and Mitterrand were in agreement "that something has to be done" about the Libyan presence, but he did not reveal what steps had been agreed upon.
Mitterrand, whose government has been besieged by criticism following a recent series of economic and diplomatic setbacks, appeared defensive and sardonic in his replies to questions yesterday.
Asked by a French journalist why his estimate of the number of Libyans in Chad had differed from American estimates, he said he had not gone to Chad personally to photograph the Libyans and thus had relied on the numbers given him by the French military.
He denied that African leaders had expressed any criticism of French policy during the summit. "It seems that the Africans have more confidence in me than certain French people have," he said, adding "Wait and judge."