By Madjiasra Nako
N’DJAMENA, April 21 (Reuters) – Rebel forces set their sights on Chad’s capital on Wednesday following the battlefield death of President Idriss Deby, a move that threatens to bring even more turmoil to a country vital to international efforts to combat Islamist militants in Africa.
A spokesman for the Libyan-based rebel group, known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), said their aim was to bring democracy to the country after years of authoritarian rule by Deby.
Rebel forces, who poured over the vast country’s northern border last weekend, were now in Kanem region about 200-300 km (125-190 miles) north of N’Djamena.
In the capital N’Djamena, schools and some businesses were open on Wednesday but many people were staying home and the streets were quiet, a Reuters reporter said.
Authorities imposed a night curfew and closed land and air borders after Deby’s death was announced. A 14-day period of national mourning is being observed.
Deby, 68, died on Monday on the frontline in a battle against FACT fighters, shocking the nation and raising concerns among Western allies who had long counted on him as an ally in their fight against Islamist groups.
He had held power since 1990 and had just been announced winner of a presidential election that would have given him a sixth term in office. His son, Mahamat Idriss Deby, has been named interim president by a transitional council of military officers. read more
Deby, an ex-army officer who often joined soldiers on the battlefront, was visiting troops who had held up the rebel advance in intense fighting.
FACT claimed responsibility for the injuries that killed him on Monday. 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, said a FACT spokesman who requested anonymity.
Following his death, the transitional council’s vice-president, Djimadoum Tirayna, said the army wanted to return power to a civilian government and hold free and democratic elections in 18 months,
But FACT rejected the military’s plan and said they would press on with their offensive.
“Chad is not a monarchy. There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country,” it said in a statement.
The rebels are still in the region of Kanem, the spokesman said. They were preparing to march on N’Djamena to “free the people” from a system that is undemocratic, he said, refering to the transfer of power to Deby’s son.
“We don’t want to seize power to hold power. Our objective is for democratic transitions to be a reality,” he said.
FACT was formed in 2016 by dissident military officers and is not linked to jihadist groups.
“We took up arms because there was no democratic space in Chad. A peaceful solution was not imaginable. We saw that Deby didn’t want to quit power,” the spokesman said.
Opposition politicians, many of whom boycotted the election and complained of repression during campaigning before the vote, also called for a return to civilian rule.
Deby had won friends abroad by sending his well-trained army to fight jihadists including 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.
His death, which Paris described as the loss of a courageous friend, poses questions about stability in both Chad itself and the wider region.
As well as the rebel and militant threat, the military is divided and opposition to Deby’s rule had been growing.
“The potentially explosive consequences of President Déby’s death cannot be underestimated – both for the future of Chad and across the region,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The New York-based organisation said the military council must respect human rights and ensure that civilians were protected. It also called for a swift transition to democratic civilian rule, and free and fair elections.
“For years, international players have propped up Déby’s government for its support for counterterrorism operations… while largely turning a blind eye to his legacy of repression and violations of social and economic rights at home,” HRW said in a statement.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.