PARIS — France accused Libya on Monday of bombing the airport of Chad's capital of N'Djamena and announced the dispatch of a military "force of deterrence" to the embattled African country to prevent similar attacks.
The announcement came just hours after a lone Soviet-built Tupolev 22 bomber flew high over N'Djamena's airport and dropped three bombs. One struck the runway, ripping a hole that forced the airport to suspend civilian flights and cut down on military flights.
Radio Tripoli denied any Libyan responsibility for the raid, saying that Chadian rebel forces had bombed the airport in retaliation for a raid by French fighter-bombers on an airport near the northern village of Ouadi Doum on Sunday.
French Defense Minister Paul Quiles, who made the announcement, did not disclose the makeup of the French "force of deterrence," but he insisted it would not resemble the French force of 3,000 troops that stalemated a Libyan-backed rebellion in 1983 and 1984.
But Quiles did say that a Jaguar fighter-bomber and two Mirage F-1 jet interceptors were moved to N'Djamena on Monday and that more planes were on the way. He also said that France has sent anti-aircraft units to N'Djamena and 200 commandos to guard military aircraft coming into Chad.
Agence France-Presse, the French news service, quoted an authoritative but unidentified government source as insisting that France, in this intervention, intended to rely on its air force rather than on its army. Under the government plan, a force of Jaguars, escorted by Mirage F-1s, would be able to strike at will throughout Chad.
But the Paris newspaper Le Monde reported that France was considering sending 1,300 French troops to guard the desert crossroads of Abeche in eastern Chad. France has already put its 1,500 troops in the neighboring Central African Republic on alert.
The recurrence of trouble in Chad, a former French colony enervated by more than 20 years of civil war, has come at a delicate time for the Socialist government of President Francois Mitterrand. French parliamentary elections are only a month away.
Show of National Unity
While members of the opposition, in a show of national unity, have supported the government's moves so far, the flare-up serves to remind voters of one of Mitterrand's few major embarrassments over foreign policy.
In September 1984, France and Libya signed an agreement providing for each to withdraw its troops from Chad. France did so, but Libya reneged. Mitterrand was ridiculed by many critics when U.S. intelligence reports revealed the continued presence of Libyan troops on the eve of a widely publicized meeting between Mitterrand and Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.
The French government has since acknowledged that Libya still has 4,500 troops in Chad.
Talking with journalists, Defense Minister Quiles described the damage to the runway at N'Djamena as minimal. He said the raid was "an act of bluff"--the Tupolev 22 coming in high out of anti-aircraft missile range and dropping its three bombs "blindly." One bomb reportedly hit the airstrip halfway across its width and a quarter of the way down its length. This meant the strip could still be used by most military aircraft but would have to be repaired for large civilian planes.
No 'Riposte for a Riposte'
Quiles said this could be done in "a few hours." Although there appeared to be a mounting series of retaliations, the minister said, "there is not going to be a riposte for a riposte. We do not look at things that way."
After the rebel troops, reportedly with Libyan support, crossed the 16th parallel--what the French call "the red line" that has separated government from rebel forces--France stepped up shipments of supplies to the government of President Hissen Habre and launched the bombing raid on the Ouadi Doum airport 550 miles northeast of N'Djamena.
France used Jaguars based in Bangui in the Central African Republic for the raid and said that it put the airstrip out of action. Forty bombs struck the 12,500-foot runway.
Libya has described the Ouadi Doum airport as a base for shipping famine relief to starving people in Chad, but Quiles dismissed this assertion as "a bad joke." The French insist that Ouadi Doum is a military airstrip used by Libya to supply the rebels.
Successive French governments have tried to rid themselves of the Chad entanglement, but it has proven impossible. Adding to the complications, the cast of characters has changed in a way that bewilders the French public. In the early days of the civil war, Habre and Goukouni Oueddei were northern rebels opposed to the French-backed government of President Francois Tombalbaye.
By 1980, Goukouni became the French-supported president of the country, and Habre, his former associate, led a rebellion against him. Now Habre is the president, backed by the French, and Goukouni has once more taken up his old role of rebel.