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Libyan Intervention in Chad, 1980-87

Libya's involvement in Chad dates to the early 1970s, when Qadhafi began supporting the antigovernment rebels of the Front for the National Liberation of Chad (FROLINAT).

In 1975 Libya occupied and subsequently annexed the Aouzou Strip a 70,000-square-kilometer area of northern Chad adjacent to the southern Libyan border. Qadhafi's move was motivated by personal and territorial ambitions, tribal and ethnic affinities between the people of northern Chad and those of southern Libya, and, most important, the presence in the area of uranium deposits needed for atomic energy development.

Libyan claims to the area were based on a 1935 border dispute and settlement between France (which then controlled Chad) and Italy (which then controlled Libya). The French parliament never ratified the settlement, however, and both France and Chad recognized the boundary that was proclaimed upon Chadian independence.

Libyan intervention has resulted in de facto control over the northern part of the country and three phases of open hostilities--in 1980-81, 1983, and late 1986--when incursions were launched to the south of Chad. During the first two phases, the Libyan units acquitted themselves more professionally than in their previous encounters with Egypt and in Uganda. In mounting the 1980 incursion, they successfully traversed hundreds of miles of desert tracks with armored vehicles and carried out air operations under harsh climatic conditions. They also gained valuable experience in logistics and maintenance of modern military forces over lengthy supply lines.

Libya's 1980 intervention in Chad was on behalf of President Goukouni Oueddei against the French-backed forces of Hissein Habré, who at the time also enjoyed Libyan support. Qadhafi's actions were portrayed as support for the Chadian northern groups of Islamic, and to some extent Arab, culture, but his objective was the creation of a Libyan sphere of influence in Chad. Even before 1980, Libyan forces had moved freely in northern areas of the country, operating from the 100-kilometer-wide Aouzou strip, which Libya had occupied by 1973.

In the late 1970s, it appeared as though Libyan ambitions were being achieved. Goukouni Oueddei, a member of the Tebu Muslim tribe in northern Chad, was installed as president in April 1979 with Libyan support.

In June 1980, an offensive by Habre's forces resulted in the capture of Faya Largeau, the key center of northern Chad. Beginning in October of that year, Libyan troops airlifted to the Aouzou strip operated in conjunction with Goukouni's forces to drive Habré back. Faya Largeau was then used as an assembly point for tanks, artillery, and armored vehicles that moved south against the capital of N'Djamena.

An attack spearheaded by Soviet T-54 and T-55 tanks, and reportedly coordinated by advisers from the Soviet Union and The German Democratic Republic, brought the fall of the capital in midDecember . The Libyan force, numbering between 7,000 and 9,000 men of regular units and the paramilitary Islamic Pan-African Legion, 60 tanks, and other armored vehicles, had been ferried across 1,100 kilometers of desert from Libya's southern border, partly by airlift and tank transporters and partly under their own power. The border itself was 1,000 to 1,100 kilometers from Libya's main bases on the Mediterranean coast.

In January 1981, the two countries announced their intention to unite.

Under increasingly insistent pressure from other African countries and from political factions in Chad, the Libyans withdrew in November 1981. Upon their return to Libya, Qadhafi announced that his troops had killed over 3,000 of the "enemy" while losing 300 themselves; other estimates of Libyan casualties were considerable higher.

Without military support from Libya, Goukouni's forces were unable to stop the advance of Habré's Armed Forces of the North (FAN), which overran the capital in June 1982. The second Libyan intervention in favor of Goukouni occurred between June and August 1983, with the distinction that Goukouni was now the head of a rebel faction against the legally constituted government of Habré. To make the 1983 phase of the Chadian war appear purely indigenous, the Libyans recruited, trained, and armed Chadian dissidents under Goukouni's nominal command. Supplemented by heavy artillery, the insurgents began well but were soundly defeated in July by Chadian government forces, bolstered by French and United States military supplies and a token force of Zairian troops. Qadhafi called for a Libyan intervention in force. A sustained air bombardment was launched against Faya Largeau after its recapture by Habré on July 30, using Su-22 fighters and Mirage F-1s from the Aouzou air base, along with Tu-22 bombers from Sabha. Within ten days, a large ground force had been assembled east and west of Faya Largeau by first ferrying men, armor, and artillery by air to Sabha, Al Kufrah, and the Aouzou airfield, and then by shorter range transport planes to the area of conflict. The fresh Libyan forces attacked the Faya Largeau oasis on August 10, driving the Chadian government units out.

The subsequent intervention of 3,000 French troops ended the Libyan successes and led to a de facto division of the country, with Libya maintaining control of all the territory north of the sixteenth parallel. Under an agreement for mutual withdrawal from Chad, French troops withdrew by early November 1984, but the Libyans secretly dispersed and hid their units.

In December 1986, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Chadian government troops were moved into the Tibesti Massif region of northwestern Chad to support Goukouni's forces, most of whom who had rebelled against the Libyans after Goukouni grew disillusioned with his Libyan backers in late 1986. Combined Goukouni and Habré forces then reportedly routed a 1,000-man Libyan garrison at Fada, claiming to have captured or destroyed a large number of tanks.

In March 1987, the main Libyan air base of Wadi Doum was captured by Chadian forces. Although strongly defended by mine fields, 5,000 troops, tanks, armored vehicles, and aircraft, the Libyans Base was overcome by a smaller Chadian attacking force equipped with trucks mounted with machine guns and antitank weapons. Two days later, the Libyans evacuated their main base of Faya Largeau, 150 kilometers farther south, which was in danger of being encircled. Observers estimated that in the Chadian victories in the first 3 months of 1987 more than 3,000 Libyan soldiers had been killed or captured or had deserted. Large numbers of tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters were captured or destroyed. In some cases, Libya sent its own aircraft to bomb abandoned Libyan equipment to deny its use to the Chadians. It was reported that in many cases Libyan soldiers had been killed while fleeing to avoid battle. At Wadi Doum, panicked Libyans had suffered high casualties running through their own mine fields.

These military actions left Habre in virtual control of Chad and in a position to threaten the expulsion of Libya from the Aouzou Strip. The full effect of these stunning defeats had yet to be assessed as of May 1987. It was clear, however, that they had affected the perception of Libya as a significant regional military power. They also cast renewed doubt on the competence and determination of Libyan fighting men, especially in engagements beyond the country's borders to which they evidently felt no personal commitment.

The stalemate in Chad ended in early 1987 when the Habré forces inflicted a series of military defeats on the Libyans and their Chadian allies, at Fada, Ouadi Doum, and Faya Largeau. The press engaged in considerable speculation on the repercussions of these humiliations on Qadhafi and his regime. It was reported that Goukouni was being kept forcibly in Tripoli, and that, as a result of some disagreements with the Libyan leader, he was wounded by a Libyan soldier. Qadhafi's position had clearly been weakened by these developments, and the long-term fighting in Chad aroused discontent in the Libyan army as well.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 11:38:40 ZULU