The French government, reacting to reports of a Libyan buildup, is reinforcing its military forces in Chad and strengthening logistics and radar bases near the northern war zones, officials said Monday.
The new deployment, which began late last week, raises the number of French soldiers in that Central African country from 1,400 to more than 2,000, according to official estimates. It particularly expands the French military presence at Abeche and Biltine, both astride a key road leading northward up the eastern side of the country, the French Defense Ministry said.
A ministry spokesman said the new deployments are not a shift in French policy. While backing President Hissen Habre with arms and money, Paris has resolved not to become involved militarily north of the 16th Parallel, which cuts the country in half and forms an informal red line against Libyan military presence.
The increased size and scope of French military activity nevertheless moves up by a notch the display of French commitment to protecting and supplying Habre's 15,000-man army. Governments in neighboring African countries have been watching the commitment closely as a measure of France's reliability as a partner in its former African colonies.
The Reagan Administration also has backed the French role in Chad, viewing it as a bulwark against expansion of Col. Moammar Kadafi's influence in Africa. Washington last year granted $15 million in U.S. military aid in addition to $6 million previously allocated as a supplement to the predominantly French military assistance program.
Libyan Military Presence
The reinforcement of French forces came in response to reports that the Libyan military presence in northern Chad has risen over several weeks from about 7,000 to more than 12,000, with another several thousand just inside Libya, a French military official said. Other reports have said that Libyan forces and allied Chadian rebels also have filtered southward along routes inside Sudan, which abuts Chad to the east.
The French deployment seemed designed as a precaution against any large-scale Libyan attack on Habre's Chadian forces. Reports here repeatedly have raised the possibility of such an attack since Habre's troops defeated Libyan garrisons at Fada and Zouar in January and since Habre vowed to retake the entire northern half of the country from Libyan troops and their remaining Chadian allies.
Since then, Habre has sought sharply increased U.S. and French military aid to push his advantage.
Abeche and Biltine, the reinforced French positions, lie on a road leading north from the capital, N'Djamena, toward Fada. Control of the road would be important in resupplying Chadian government troops in the event of a counterattack on Fada or a Chadian push northward on the Libyan garrison at Faya Largeau.
Libya has maintained troops in Chad for the last several years in support of anti-government rebels.