Thousands mourn Chad's Deby, rebels say their command hit by air strike


By Madjiasra Nako

N'DJAMENA, April 23 (Reuters) - Thousands of people gathered in the main square in Chad's capital N'Djamena on Friday for the funeral of President Idriss Deby, whose death while leading his troops against a rebel offensive has thrown the country into crisis.

Mourners included President Emmanuel Macron of France, which counted on the long-ruling strongman as a lynchpin in the war against Islamist militants, and a host of African presidents and prime ministers.

Rebel forces meanwhile said their command centre was bombed on Wednesday night in an attempt to kill their own leader.

The rebels have swept south this month across the vast desert from their bases in Libya towards N'Djamena and say they are about 200-300 km (125-190 miles) from the capital. They called a temporary ceasefire to allow Deby's funeral to take place.

Before the ceremony on Friday morning, Macron and other Sahel leaders met with Deby's son Mahamat Idriss Deby and members of the military transition council which has taken charge in N'Djamena to discuss the political transition, a French presidency source said.

The 37-year-old Deby, who holds the rank of general, has dissolved parliament and taken over as president and armed forces commander.

The self-appointed council has said it will hold democratic elections in 18 months. But opposition leaders have condemned the takeover as a coup and called for civil disobedience, while an army general said many officers were also opposed to the transition plan.

Deby, whose 30-year-old rule was marked by repression, was an ally of Western powers and his demise has raised worries that more turmoil and uncertainty will hamper the fight against Islamist militants who are spreading across Africa.

Thousands of people gathered in a solemn mood on Friday in N'Djamena's Place de la Nation to pay their respects to him.

Suited dignitaries exchange greetings on red carpets under the square's silver arches, while women dressed in black wiped tears from their faces.

His coffin, draped in a national flag, was carried on a military pickup truck flanked by a motorcycle escort. Loud weeping swelled from the crowd as it arrived at the square.

"He protected us for so long that today we have come to wish him eternal rest. A deserved rest," said N'Djamena resident Hassan Adoum, who attended the ceremony.


Rebels of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) said that warplanes had bombed their centre on Wednesday night in an attempt to kill their leader Mahamat Mahadi Ali. They accused France of supporting the raid with aerial surveillance.

"Our command was bombed on the orders of the military junta with the complicity of foreign agencies present in our country", FACT said in a statement.

The group, which was formed by dissident officers in 2016 and is not linked to Islamists, did not specify where the command centre was located or give details of any casualties or damage.

The French army said on Friday it had not carried out any air strikes this week in Chad.

French diplomatic and military sources have indicated that Paris would seriously consider intervening in its former colony if the rebels were to close in on N’Djamena and threaten the stability of the country. Chad's army did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Edward McAllister and Madjiasra Nako; writing by Hereward Holland; editing by Angus MacSwan)

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