NAIROBI, Kenya – The rebels have accomplished an amazing feat. Just a week after their armed convoy roared across the desert in northern Chad, they began a battle that claimed the biggest scalp of all on Monday: Idriss Déby, Chad’s three-decade-old iron fist president, killed in the field of he was fighting when a shell exploded near his vehicle, according to a senior assistant.
On Wednesday, a day after his death, a feeling of restraint and disbelief was announced that reverberated through the capital, Ndjamena, where the army officially installed as a temporary president the 37-year-old son of Mr. Déby, Mahamat Idriss Déby. Rumors of an imminent rebel attack on the city were circulating in its streets.
But the secret of the rebels’ striking success remained behind them, across the northern border of Chad in Libya, where they have been fighting as wealthy soldiers for years, amassing weapons, money and experience on the battlefield, according to UN investigators. regional and official officials in Chad. In fact, the rebels used Libya’s chaotic war to prepare for their own campaign in Chad.
Until recently, they were hired by Khalifa Hifter, a powerful Libyan commander, once backed by President Donald J. Trump. They fought with weapons provided by the United Arab Emirates, one of Mr Hifter’s main foreign sponsors.
And they were based last year in a large Libyan military air base with mercenaries from the Wagner group, a private company backed by the Kremlin, considered a spearhead for Russia’s secret efforts to spread its military influence in Africa.
Experts say the unexpected coup by Chadian rebels provides a clear example of how Libya’s decade-old power vacuum, beginning with the ouster of dictator Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, has incubated a number of mercenaries and other armed groups. some of which are now spreading chaos in the region.
“The Libyan civil war has created an environment in which armed groups, not only in Chad but in all corners, can thrive and find sponsors and allies,” said Nathaniel Powell, a research associate at the Center for War and Diplomacy in Lancaster University in Great Britain and the author of the “French Wars in Chad”.
Uncertainty has dominated Chad since Mr Déby’s death, calling into question the stability of a nation seen by the United States and France as a focal point of their efforts to counter Islamist militancy in West and Central Africa.
In a statement on Wednesday, the rebels, who call themselves the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT, by its French acronym), threatened to march on Ndjamena this weekend, following Mr Déby’s funeral scheduled for Friday.
It is unclear whether the rebels can deal with this threat. They suffered heavy losses earlier this week – the Chadian army claimed to have killed 300 rebels – and foreign military officials are unsure how far the rebel force is from the capital.
Even so, the Chadian army fortified the defense around the presidential palace on Wednesday, where officials denied persistent rumors that Mr Déby’s successor, his son Mahamat, had also been killed or injured.
“If he was shot or killed, that means he is a good actor, because he is alive and kicked,” said Acheikh Ibn-Oumar, a senior presidential adviser who said he spoke from inside the palace.
There are still questions about the circumstances of the death of old Mr. Déby and whether he was actually killed by a rival. But Mr Ibn-Oumar, echoing the statements of military leaders, insisted the president had been killed when a rebel shell exploded near his vehicle near Nokou, 170 miles north of Ndjamena.
Mr Déby was killed the day he won the sixth election, plagued by irregularities. Western countries have largely ignored his sad evidence of corruption and abuse of rights, as he was a bulwark against the rising tide of Islamist militancy in the Sahel, an arid area bordering the Sahara and spanning six African countries.
France has had a continuous military presence in Ndjamena since 1986, and the counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel, known as Operation Barkhane, has been headquartered in the Chadian capital since its launch in 2014. France says at least 1,000 U.S. troops is currently in Chad.
But rebels seeking to overthrow Mr Déby have voiced a number of local grievances against the 31-year-old rule of a powerful old-fashioned African man accused of squandering considerable oil revenues in Chad, leaving him among the poorer countries on earth.
Since the 1990s, a number of rebel groups, many defined by ethnic identity, have tried to overthrow him. Some were based in the Darfur region of southwestern Sudan, where they received funding and weapons from Sudanese dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
After Mr al-Bashir and Deby reached a peace deal in 2010 and agreed not to support rebels fighting each other’s governments, Chadian rebels were forced to leave Sudan. They found a new base a year later in Libya.
In the chaos that followed the dismissal and death of Colonel Gaddafi in 2011, rival Libyan factions have hired African mercenaries to fight alongside their own forces. The Chadians, who have a reputation as fighters in the desert, have been in high demand.
Some Chadians even changed parts if the price was right.
FACT began with a Libyan faction based in the central city of Misurata, said a United Nations official who spoke with the group’s leadership but was not allowed to speak to the media. But by 2019 they had shifted their support to a rival faction, led by Mr Hifter, which had launched a campaign to confiscate the capital, Tripoli.
Chadians are by no means the most famous foreign mercenaries in Libya. Much more attention has been paid to Russian and Syrian fighters who have played a key role in Mr Hifter’s push for Tripoli.
But the money, weapons and experience gathered by African mercenaries, mostly from Chad and Sudan, are now being used in other countries.
A UN report released in February noted that FACT fighters were based at a major military air base in Al Jufra, in central Libya – an airfield that is also a hub for Russian Wagner group mercenaries and has received flights. cargo carrying weapons from the United Arab Emirates, the report notes.
The UN also mentioned that a plane owned by Erik Prince, the former owner of Blackwater, who organized an unfortunate $ 80 million mercenary operation for Mr. Hifter, was photographed at Jufra air base.
Following the collapse of Mr Hifter’s assault on Tripoli last year, Libyan warring factions signed a ceasefire agreement in October, most of which took place.
Following the end of the fighting in Libya, the fighters in Chad returned home for the uprising they launched against Mr Déby on 11 April. You may have brought some of Libya’s advanced weapons with them, said Cameron Hudson, a former State Department official now in the Atlantic Council, a Washington research body.
He said the Chadians appeared to be traveling in the same armored vehicles that the Emirates had donated to Mr Hifter.
The UN official said that even at the height of the Libyan war, the rebels had always intended to go home to Chad.
“That’s their real interest,” he said. “They talked about gathering as many weapons as possible and returning to Chad.”
Mahamat Adamou contributed to the reports from Ndjamena, Chad and Elian Peltier in London.