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Analysts: French Military Aid Key to Chad, CAR


French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is set to visit Chad Thursday, where he is expected to reaffirm French political support for Chadian President Idriss Deby. The visit comes just days after a flare-up in rebel activity. Chad, and its neighbor Central African Republic, depend on French military help. Over the past week, French forces have played a key role in helping both countries fight their respective rebel movements. From VOA's regional bureau in Dakar, Jordan Davis reports.

In recent months, Chadian rebel groups have killed a top army commander and played cat and mouse games with national army troops in the east. Tuesday, rebels shot down a Chadian military plane.

For Rolake Akinola, an Africa analyst with the London-based Control Risks, it is increasingly clear Chadian President Idriss Deby is in trouble.

"We know that even his loyal, close presidential circle is gradually disintegrating. We know that the huge army defections that have occurred, the discontent among his own ethnic Zaghawa over the treatment of fellow ethnic Zaghawa in Darfur," said Akinola. "And we know all of this does not portend well for long-term stability in the country."

With rebel clashes increasing, France is adding 100 troops to back up a 1,000-strong French force there.

France provides intelligence and logistical support to Chad's armed forces, under one of many defense agreements it has with its former colonies.

Simon Massey of England's Coventry University says French assistance so far has kept rebels from taking the capital NDjamena. Stability in Chad, he says, is key to France keeping its influence in the entire region.

"They maintain a garrison of about a thousand [troops] in Chad. Plus three airstrips which they can use in any instances which require military operations in that part of Central Africa," noted Massey.

French forces dispatched from Chad were critical in helping the Central African Republic's forces retake the northern city of Birao earlier this week.

As in Chad, France says its role in CAR is largely logistical. But at the Birao airport French troops themselves became involved in a gunfight with rebels after they said they were fired upon.

The armed rebel movement in CAR opposes President Francois Bozize, an ally of Chadian president Idriss Deby.

Though Chad is rich in fossil fuels, Massey says, French oil companies have pulled out of the country's oil fields.

"France has diminishing economic interests in Chad," he added. "And I think a lot of it does fall back on to prestige and an unwillingness to quit a country which they have put a lot of effort into over the years."

In the early 1980s France announced it would no longer support dictatorial regimes.

But opponents of France's current Africa policy say military assistance continues to prop up friendly leaders who are undemocratic.

France's role in an increasingly unsettled region has made local headlines seven months ahead of the country's presidential elections. Both front runners hoping to replace President Jacques Chirac have called for major changes to the country's Africa policy.