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Chad in turmoil after Deby death as rebels, opposition challenge military

Madjiasra Nako and Mahamat Ramadane
·5-min read
People drive past a Chad army tank near the presidential palace, in N'djamena

By Madjiasra Nako and Mahamat Ramadane

N'DJAMENA (Reuters) -The son of Chad's slain leader Idriss Deby took over as president and armed forces commander on Wednesday as rebel forces threatened to march on the capital, deepening the turmoil in a country vital to international efforts to combat Islamist militants in Africa.

The political opposition denounced the military's takeover of control, as did an army general who said he spoke for many officers. Labour unions called for a workers' strike.

Deby, 68, was killed on Monday on the frontline in a battle against fighters of the Libyan-based Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), a group formed by dissident army officers.

His death shocked the nation and raised concerns among Western allies, notably France and the United States, who had counted on him as an ally in their fight against Islamist groups including Islamic State and Boko Haram.

Deby had been in power since 1990 and had just been declared winner of a presidential election that would have given him a sixth term in office. His son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby, was named interim president by a transitional council of military officers.

General Deby, 37, moved to consolidate his position on Wednesday, with the council issuing a new charter in place of the constitution granting him the functions of president and also naming him as head of the armed forces.

In his first public comments since taking power, Deby said the army wanted to return power to a civilian government and hold free and democratic elections in 18 months.

"The military council has no ambition to govern the country alone," he said in a speech to political party representatives, posted on the presidency website.

The military also announced it had re-opened Chad's borders, which were closed after Deby's death.

The FACT rebels rejected the military's plan and said on Wednesday that a pause in hostilities they are observing to give time for Deby to be buried would end at midnight.

"The forces of national resistance are more than ever determined to deliver the Chadian people from this abominable dictatorship," they said in a statement.

The statement also warned foreign heads of state against going to Deby's funeral on Friday "for imperatives of security". French President Emmanuel Macron plans to attend, a spokesman said.

OVER THE BORDER

A spokesman for FACT, which is not linked to jihadists, said its forces were now in Kanem region about 200-300 km (125-190 miles) north of N'Djamena and their aim was to bring democracy to Chad after years of authoritarian rule by Deby.

The fighters swept across the vast country's northern border last weekend.

"We don't want to seize power to hold power. Our objective is for democratic transitions to be a reality," the spokesman said, adding the group was preparing to march on N'Djamena.

FACT claimed responsibility for the injuries that killed Deby on Monday. An ex-army officer who often joined soldiers on the battlefront, Deby was visiting troops who had held up the rebel advance in intense fighting over the weekend.

He was wounded by gunfire in the village of Mele near the town of Nokou, more than 300 km (190 miles) north of N’Djamena, and evacuated to the capital where he later died, the FACT spokesman said. The presidency has not commented on the exact circumstances of his death.

In N'Djamena, reactions poured in to the military's takeover and dissolution of the government and parliament. Under the constitution, the speaker of the National Assembly should have become interim president.

The speaker, Haroun Kabadi, said in a statement that "given the military, security and political context" he had agreed to a military transition "with full lucidity".

But in a joint statement, about a dozen opposition party leaders, many of whom boycotted the election, condemned what they called "the institutional coup d'etat conducted by the generals".

Civil society organisations also called for a return to civilian rule, and a coalition of armed groups demanded an inclusive national dialogue.

Idriss Abderamane Dicko, an active-duty general who previously served in Deby's military cabinet, said many officers opposed the military council's takeover and called for dialogue.

"If they continue to maintain their position and impose their point of view, the risk of division at the heart of the army is not to be excluded," he told Reuters.

FRENCH FRIENDS

Deby had won friends abroad by sending his well-trained army to fight Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin and groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel.

His main ally, France, has about 5,100 troops based across the region as part of international efforts to fight the militants, including its main base in N'Djamena. The United States also has military personnel there.

France has called for the creation of a civilian government within a "limited period". U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Washington "would be concerned with anything that stands in the way" of a transition to civilian rule.

Regional powerhouse Nigeria's foreign minister said it was willing to help facilitate dialogue, but that while an early return to democratic rule was the ultimate goal, the immediate objective was the stabilisation of Chad and the region.

Human Rights Watch criticised the West's relationship with Deby, saying that for years it had propped up Deby's government while turning a blind eye to his repression.

In N'Djamena, where authorities imposed a nightly curfew after Deby's death, schools and some businesses were open on Wednesday but many people stayed home and streets were quiet.

A 14-day period of national mourning is being observed.

"We must make sure that this military council does not take over power," said Djimadoum Ngarteri, a teacher, calling for all sides to lay down weapons. "We Chadians are fed up. We do not need people who take power with weapons."

(Reporting by Madjiasra Nako and Mahamat Ramadane in N'Djamena, Nellie Peyton, Aaron Ross and Edward McAllister in Dakar, Simon Lewis in Washington; writing by Angus MacSwan; editing by Nick Tattersall, William Maclean and Grant McCool)