French warplanes bombed a Libyan-built airfield in northern Chad today in retaliation for Tripoli's logistical support for rebels seeking to overthrow the government of President Hissene Habre.
A statement by the French Defense Ministry in Paris said that the bombing mission was carried out on the orders of President Francois Mitterrand in response to last week's offensive by Libyan-backed rebels. Describing the raid as "a complete success," the ministry said Jaguar aircraft evaded enemy radar and Soviet-made SA6 antiaircraft missiles around Ouadi Doum airfield and returned safely to their bases.
The bombing raid, which took place at 8 a.m. local time, marks France's second direct military intervention in Chad since the left-wing election victory in May 1981. The Socialist government withdrew about 3,000 troops from its former African colony in November 1984, but promised to prevent the rebels crossing a "red line" along the 16th Parallel dividing the country.
According to reports from Ndjamena, about 200 French air commandos have arrived in the Chadian capital to supervise the increased flow of military hardware and ammunition to Habre's forces. In the neighboring Central African Republic, 1,500 more French troops also have been placed on alert.
French officials described today's bombing raid as a warning to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi following a flare-up in the 20-year-old civil war in Chad, a landlocked African state that borders on Libya. Habre's government has accused Libyan troops of playing an active role in the fighting in addition to providing vital logistical support to the rebels, who are led by former president Goukouni Oueddei.
With crucial legislative elections a month away, diplomatic analysts here said that Mitterrand was anxious to avoid giving the impression of weakness. It is widely believed in Paris that the rebel offensive was timed to take advantage of the election campaign and the resulting political uncertainty in France.
French Defense Minister Paul Quiles said that the 12,500-foot airstrip at Ouadi Doum, completed only last year, had been used as a key logistical base for the latest rebel offensive.
"This action was undertaken following an appeal to France by the government of Chad, in response to attacks now under way against this country, south of the 16th Parallel," Quiles said in a statement.
He said France was countering "a foreign intervention."
The bombing raid was denounced by a Paris-based representative for the rebels, Abderrahman Moussa, who denied that Libyans were involved in the latest fighting in Chad. He described the French attack as unjustified and said it could provoke "consequences that are difficult to imagine."
Although military specialists differ over the precise role played by Libyan troops in the latest rebel offensive, there is general agreement that Goukouni's forces are dependent on Tripoli's logistical support. French journalists who visited northern Chad earlier this month reported evidence of close Libyan supervision of the rebels.
In September 1984, Libya and France announced that they would simultaneously pull back their troops from Chad following a year-long military stalemate. Mitterrand, who held a surprise meeting with Qaddafi two months later on the Greek island of Crete, was politically embarrassed when U.S. satellite pictures were reported to reveal that the Libyans had not kept their side of the bargain.
Western diplomats here say that Qaddafi, after getting the better of Mitterrand in 1984, may have been tempted to call the French president's bluff a second time. If so, he may have misread the subtle political situation now confronting Mitterrand, who wants to complete his seven-year term even if the right-wing opposition wins next month's elections.
"By ordering today's bombing raid, Mitterrand is exercising his presidential power in a way that the opposition will have difficulty arguing with. This can only strengthen his position," a western diplomat said.
Political analysts here said that by sending in the Jaguars, Mitterrand had chosen a military option with a relatively low degree of electoral risk. Previous French military interventions in Chad have normally involved the dispatch of an armed expeditionary force.
On the other hand, today's bombing raid raises the prospect of a more direct confrontation with Libya. Although Quiles insisted that the airstrip was the "sole target," there was speculation here that Libyan technicians and ground staff could have been injured.
According to French officials, the bombing was conducted by 15 Jaguar aircraft stationed at the French military base in the Central African Republic. The Jaguars, which had to be refueled en route, were protected by French Mirage fighters as they flew to the airfield, 550 miles northeast of Ndjamena.
The Libyan ambassador in Paris, Ahmed Houdeiry, called on French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas this afternoon to discuss the raid, but neither side commented on the interview.
The present fighting started on Feb. 10, when rebels began attacking government outposts south of the "red line" drawn by the French during their 1983-4 intervention in Chad. Habre's government announced yesterday that it had succeeded in holding back the rebel offensive.
Reacting to today's bombing raid, Tripoli radio accused France of attacking a civilian airport "used for landing medical supplies and food for the famine victims of northern Chad."