Armed with AK-47 submachine guns and wearing sunglasses and head cloths to protect against the desert sand, Chadian troops drove a howling caravan of gun-mounted Toyota pickup trucks into the main entrance of the Libyan base here last month, easily piercing the lumbering Libyan defense line.
A weekend battlefield tour by the first group of foreign reporters to visit this sunbaked, desolate area since it was liberated by Chad on March 22 indicates that the Libyans were unprepared, undisciplined and incapable of meeting the challenge of the Chadians despite their military superiority.
The wiry Chadian soldiers easily outmaneuvered their Libyan foes in Soviet tanks and armored personnel carriers as they skimmed across the desert sand in gun-mounted pickups, Chadian commanders said.
The Soviet-made T-55 tanks became bogged down in the talcum-powder-like sand while Chad’s jerry-built civilian-military vehicles raced across the dunes at 70 m.p.h. , the commanders said.
Ouadi Doum, a two-mile aluminum runway ringed by sophisticated Soviet-designed weaponry and equipment, was overrun by the Chadian forces. More than a third of the 4,000-man Libyan garrison was either killed or captured, the Chadians said.
Fled in Panic
The rest fled in panic, abandoning 20 jet fighter-bombers and nearly 200 tanks and armored personnel carriers, most of them in working order.
At one point, the Chadians found 11 T-55 tanks parked in a line along a road. Gueilet Hemchi, a Chadian military commander, said the tanks were in neutral, keys in the ignition.
Chadian military commanders said the Libyans never called in air protection for their ground troops despite an abundance of air cover.
Twisted, blackened aircraft lie beside the runway of the base. But seven Czechoslovak-built Albatross L-39 fighter-bombers are lined up undamaged, near an MI-24 Hind armored attack helicopter in working order.
Manuals Printed in Russian
On two low hills flanking the runway, the Libyans posted the huge truck-mounted antenna of a “Spoonrest” distant early warning system. Instruction manuals printed in Russian are scattered in the trucks and on the ground outside.
All along the tire tracks in the sand between Fada and Ouadi Doum, heavy Libyan equipment stands abandoned. Dozens of 10-wheeled Faun tank transporters made in West Germany stand undamaged under the glaring sun.
Surrounding the base were batteries of new 20-foot-long SAM-6 anti-aircraft missiles, also undamaged. French sources said they were a new, sophisticated version of the SAM-6 that had never been seen in the West. At French request, they were quickly moved to the Chadian base of Kalait, to be protected from the Libyans, who bombed their abandoned encampment.
Chose Forsaken Spot
For hundreds of miles in this desert, not a blade of grass, not even a thorn bush graces the brown sand and reddish rock. The Libyans, who for four years occupied the northern half of Chad, picked this forsaken spot for their biggest air base because it was within striking distance of N’Djamena, Chad’s capital 600 miles to the southwest, and because they believed the desert protected them.
In the end, it only facilitated the Chadians’ lightning triumph.
The loss of Ouadi Doum and Faya-Largeau, armed with an estimated $1 billion in military hardware, has shattered Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s plan to foment Libyan-style Islamic revolution in northern Chad, and some Western analysts believe may have gotten him into trouble at home.
The beginning of the end of Kadafi’s four-year occupation of the north began March 19 at the southern edge of the Bir Kora region, 45 miles southeast of Ouadi Doum in a desolate landscape of boulder-strewn desert.
A force of 2,500 Chadian soldiers crept up on a column of 600 Libyans, most of them sleeping with no scouts on patrol, and sliced quickly through them, according to Chadian officers. The next day, a similar force of 800 Libyans was crushed a little farther north.
No Cover for Tank Patrols
In addition, they said, Libyan tank patrols were left without routine artillery cover. Reporters found a battery of seven mostly unfired 122-millimeter artillery pieces, set up in a classic staggered Soviet combat formation, near a patrol of destroyed tanks. The artillery shells were piled up beside the guns.
“The Libyans are never ready,” said a Western diplomat in N’Djamena. “They’re either asleep, resting, or they don’t believe you are coming. The Libyans’ ability to ignore reality is absolutely astounding.”
A radar log discovered at the base provided striking evidence of boredom and frustration among Libyan troops at the isolated base where temperatures daily soar to 100 degrees.
After days of no aircraft sightings, Ismael Barassi, a radar operator on the early warning system, finally got a reading of hostile aircraft but said in his log entry of Jan. 14 that he could not raise the target acquisition radar that was supposed to alert a SAM missile site.
‘Not My Responsibility’
“I tried to make contact repeatedly with the station,” he said. “It’s not my responsibility if they don’t answer.”
The Libyan troops apparently whiled away the hours by designing tablets with quotes from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, or from Kadafi’s “Green Book,” containing his principles of revolution. The letters were made of pebbles pasted onto wooden boards.
Despite the loss of the two columns at Bir Kora, there is little to suggest the Libyans had made special preparations for the attack on the heavily fortified Ouadi Doum base on March 22.
Within an hour, the Chadians had control of the runway. By late evening, the base was theirs and along with it about $500 million in aircraft, radar and the sophisticated SAM-6 surface-to-air missiles.
Dozen Showroom-New Tanks
In underground storage areas, the Chadians found a dozen Soviet-made T-62 tanks in showroom condition that were never called out to defend the base.
In contrast with the heavy Libyan losses, the Chadians said only 29 of their men were killed.
“I estimate that the Libyans engaged nearly half of their war potential here,” Yosko Hassan, assistant Chadian commander of the Ouadi Doum attack, said at a news conference in an encampment near the base.
“We Chadians, we had nearly nothing. Our army is a young one, with very little means. We tried to act within our means,” he said.
Libyans fleeing Ouadi Doum provoked panic among the 2,500 to 3,000 Libyans in Faya-Largeau, the oasis hometown of Chadian President Hissen Habre whose 2,815 inhabitants had grown tired of the Libyan occupation, the Libyan-style People’s Committee governing groups, and the efforts to brainwash the community into anti-Western fervor.
Millions in Equipment
Some munitions stores were blown up, but millions of dollars in tanks, mortars, rifles and ammunition were abandoned. The evacuation was disorderly, with no attempt to set up a rear defense line. By March 27, the Chadians marched into Faya-Largeau and took over without firing a shot.
In a mine field just outside town, they found nine Libyan soldiers who had gotten trapped by their own devices. They were taken prisoner.
“We lost our direction and didn’t know which way to go,” said one of the nine, standing barefoot in the sand in a courtyard at police headquarters.
“The Libyans have a habit that when something goes wrong, they just abandon their equipment,” military commander Hemchi said at a press conference in Faya-Largeau. “The military commanders gave no orders. They were so demoralized they fled.”