A major victory by Chadian government troops in a battle against Libyan troops in northern Chad this week, which touched off spontaneous street celebrations in the dusty streets of the capital, N'Djamena, was the most severe blow yet to Col. Moammar Kadafi's forces there.
The Chadians overran Ouadi Doum, Libya's largest military base in the north-central African country, "after a violent battle that will remain unforgettable in Chadian history," the national armed forces of Chad said in a statement.
The battle, about 100 miles northeast of Faya-Largeau, lasted just a few hours Sunday evening. With details of the victory beginning to emerge Tuesday, American and French intelligence analysts described it as a "fantastic" and "brilliant" military maneuver, the most important victory in months of fighting and a valuable boost to war-torn Chad's morale.
One Western intelligence official in Paris, borrowing an image from the "Star Wars" movies, described Ouadi Doum, defended by 5,000 Libyan troops, as Libya's "Death Star--a tremendous installation with a heavily fortified runway, all kinds of helicopters and transport planes, and scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers."
The loss of Ouadi Doum "is practically a fatal blow in terms of morale for the Libyans," that official said. "And the Chadians were celebrating like it was V-E Day in Europe."
Kadafi had been steadily increasing his troop strength in northern Chad in the two months after the government's victory Jan. 2 at Fada, a northern city that Libya had held for three years. Chadian forces retook Fada in less than a day, killing hundreds of Libyan soldiers and seizing millions of dollars worth of Soviet-made tanks, trucks and assorted weaponry.
On Tuesday, Chad's military high command said its army killed 1,269 Libyans in the Sunday fighting. In its first published casualty list from the battle for Ouadi Doum, the military said 438 Libyans were taken prisoner, while 29 Chadian soldiers were killed and 58 wounded.
The prisoners included the regional commander, Col. Khalifa Hastar, Chad said, adding that Hastar's deputy, Col. Gassim abu Nawar, was among the dead.
The Chadian army also captured substantial amounts of weaponry, including 11 Czech-made L-39 bombers, three Soviet MI-24 combat helicopters and a large number of tanks, as well as hundreds of other vehicles armed with guns or anti-aircraft missiles, the military said.
Before this week's Chad victory, Western military analysts had estimated that 12,000 Libyan troops, about a third of Kadafi's army, were assembled in or near northern Chad, preparing to retake Fada.
"I don't have any idea what Kadafi's going to do now," one Western analyst said Tuesday from Paris. "That troop buildup was mostly at Ouadi Doum. I think he's probably trying to figure out how to keep all his people at Faya-Largeau from being taken prisoner."
Faya-Largeau is one of the cities Libya still controls in Chad's rugged north, but the loss of Ouadi Doum means that Kadafi's primary remaining air base in Chad is in Aozou, nearly 200 miles farther north. The Libyans had used Ouadi Doum and Aozou, as well as bases across the border in southern Libya, to stage frequent air attacks on Chadian forces in Fada and other government-held positions.
Hundreds of Troops Killed
Last week, in battles south of Ouadi Doum, Chad said its troops killed several hundred Libyan soldiers and confiscated and destroyed dozens of trucks and other military equipment.
Chad receives hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military support from France, which has about 2,400 soldiers stationed south of the 16th Parallel in Chad, the line France has drawn and promised to protect against any Libyan attacks from the north.
Retaliating for Libyan incursions south of that line in the past year, French fighter planes twice flew missions in the north to bomb Ouadi Doum.
American military support for Chad soared from $5 million to $20 million this year after the character of Chad's war changed, virtually overnight.
In a bizarre turn of events, the Toubou rebels of northern Chad, who had been fighting the government troops of Chadian President Hissen Habre with Libya's help, switched allegiances after their leader, Goukouni Oueddei, had an unexplained falling-out with Kadafi. Goukouni switched sides, joining with the N'Djamena government against Libya.
Kadafi Seen as Invader
Kadafi began supporting a smaller rebel group in northern Chad, but he had lost a politically significant Chadian ally in the Toubou as well as the services of soldiers highly skilled in fighting on northern Chad's mountainous desert terrain. For the first time in nearly 20 years of Chadian internal fighting and Libyan intervention, Kadafi was being seen as an invader.
Even before his defeat at Ouadi Doum, Kadafi was under pressure at home from Libyans, including soldiers, unhappy with the war effort in Chad and its drain on the country's resources, Western diplomats have said.