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Repelling Libya's Occupying Force, 1985-87

Although French negotiating efforts had failed to dislodge the Libyans from their foothold in northern Chad, Habré continued to consolidate his military situation during 1985 and 1986. At the same time, Goukouni's forces were becoming debilitated because of defections and internal dissension. Rebellion in the south by codos had virtually ceased by the summer of 1986, as increasing numbers of codos yielded to the Habré government. According to Colonel Alphonse Kotiga, the former codo leader who had become reconciled with Habré in 1986, as many as 15,000 had accepted offers of compensation and training to become reintegrated into civil or military life. Only about 10 percent could be absorbed as recruits by FANT, but the end of the revolt permitted the redeployment of FANT units from the south to face Goukouni's Libyan-backed forces in the north.

Goukouni's GUNT, reequipped by Libya and now numbering 4,000 to 5,000 men, was concentrated in the Tibesti region and at Fada and Faya Largeau. In addition to these forces, about 5,000 Libyan troops remained in northern Chad. At Ouadi Doum, near Faya Largeau, the Libyans had constructed a new air base to handle bombers and air resupply operations. A GUNT offensive in February and March 1986 ended the military stalemate that had prevailed through most of 1985. The GUNT drive, heavily supported by Libya, triggered a return of French forces, called Operation Epervier (Sparrowhawk). Initially involving about 1,400 men, by early 1987 when Libya appeared to be massing for a new thrust, the French deployment had mounted to 2,500 and included, in addition, a detachment of Jaguar and Mirage aircraft.

Differences within GUNT reached a critical stage in August 1986. Acheikh ibn Oumar, who had succeeded the deceased Acyl Ahmat as leader of the pro-Libyan CDR, had become Goukouni's adversary. The followers of Goukouni, essentially the former FAP, were increasingly resentful of Libya's domination in the north and were reluctant to renew their offensive against FANT. When fighting broke out between FAP units and the CDR at Fada, Libya interceded with armor and air power. As a result, Goukouni's men, constituting about two-thirds of the GUNT army, were forced to take refuge in the surrounding mountains.

A cease-fire was arranged in October 1986 between the government's FANT and the mutinous FAP units, although Goukouni himself was reportedly under house arrest at the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Provided by FANT with rations and military supplies, FAP troops set out to harass Libyan and CDR concentrations. But, under pressure from Libyan air strikes, most of FAP gradually made its way to traditional strongholds in the mountainous Tibesti region or slipped southward to be absorbed into FANT.

In mid-December 1986, three Libyan armored columns attacked the main settlements occupied by FAP in the Tibesti region. They forced the Chadians to retreat from the towns of Zouar and Wour into the nearby mountains; at Bardaï, however, the tide turned, and the Chadians repelled the Libyans, who suffered heavy losses. In the meantime, FANT troops had assembled at Kalait to prepare an assault on Fada, which was occupied by 1,200 Libyan and 400 CDR soldiers. FANT units had been equipped by France and the United States with light armored vehicles, all-terrain pickup trucks, and antitank and antiaircraft missile launchers.

The tactics employed by FANT at Fada became a model for subsequent attacks on Libyan garrisons. In a series of swiftly executed pincer movements, successive barriers of Libyan tanks and armored vehicles defending the desert track south of Fada were breached in the early hours of January 2, 1987. The fast-moving FANT columns would leave the road to outflank the entrenched Libyan armor, which was protected by mine fields, then open fire with antitank missiles and recoilless rifles, at times from ranges as close as fifty meters. In some cases, the destruction of one Libyan tank induced the others to flee. The final two Libyan tank barriers, twenty and ten kilometers south of Fada, were hurriedly withdrawn and regrouped around the headquarters and airstrip northwest of the oasis; by noon, however, both strongpoints had fallen. Most of the Libyan command escaped by air, but the Libyan death toll was more than 700, and 150 prisoners were taken. A considerable arsenal of weapons, armor, and munitions, as well as armed trainer aircraft, was captured (see table 10; Appendix A).

Striving to reestablish his position and salvage the reputation of his army, Qadhaafi built up his troop strength in the region from 6,000 at the end of 1986 to 11,000 by March 1987. Offensive operations were resumed in late February 1987 against several oases. Two Libyan columns attempted to drive south from Ouadi Doum toward Fada, but each was routed by elements of FANT near Bir Korba on March 19 and 20. Pursuing the retreating Libyans, FANT units caught the defenders of Ouadi Doum unprepared and succeeded in capturing the base after a twenty-five-hour battle on March 22-23. Libyan casualties were especially heavy; reportedly, over 1,200 were killed and about 450 taken prisoner. At both Bir Korba and Ouadi Doum, FANT units captured large amounts of equipment intact, including 50 tanks, more than 100 other armored vehicles, and additional aircraft.

The fall of Ouadi Doum was a severe setback for Libya. Deserted by most of their Chadian allies, Libyan forces found themselves isolated in alien territory, and the loss of the main Libyan air base in Chad prevented Libya from providing close air cover to its troops. In general, the offensive against FANT had exposed the vulnerability of Libya's heavy armor to a more mobile enemy. Libya's combat performance reflected growing discouragement and a sapping of the will to fight. On Qadhaafi's orders, a general withdrawal was undertaken from Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti Prefecture, beginning with Faya Largeau, which had served as the main Libyan base during the preceding four years. Its garrison of 3,000 troops, together with the survivors of Bir Korba and Ouadi Doum, retired toward the Libyan base at Maatan as Sarra, north of the Chadian border. Subsequently, Libya mounted bombing raids from bases in its southern region in an effort to keep FANT from using the abandoned equipment.

In August 1987, the Chadians carried their offensive into the disputed Aozou Strip, occupying the town of Aozou following another battle in which the Libyans suffered severe losses in troops and abandoned equipment. In retaliation Libya intensified its air bombardments against towns in the north, usually from altitudes beyond the range of FANT's shoulder-fired missiles. Appeals by Habré for French air missions to defend the area against the bombing were rejected. President Mitterrand distanced himself from the advance into the Aozou Strip, calling for international mediation to settle competing claims to the territory.

After a succession of counterattacks, toward the end of August the Libyans finally drove the 400 Chadian troops out of the town of Aozou. This victory--the first by Libyan ground forces since the Chadian offensive had gotten under way eight months earlier--was apparently achieved through close-range air strikes, which were followed by ground troops advancing cross-country in jeeps, Toyota all-terrain trucks, and light armored vehicles. For the Libyans, who had previously relied on ponderous tracked armor, the assault represented a conversion to the desert warfare tactics developed by FANT.

Habré quickly reacted to this setback and to the continued bombing of FANT concentrations in northern Chad. On September 5, 1987, he mounted a surprise raid against the key Libyan air base at Maatan as Sarra. Reportedly, 1,000 Libyans were killed, 300 were captured, and hundreds of others were forced to flee into the surrounding desert. Chad claimed that its troops destroyed about thirty-two aircraft--including MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters, Su-22 fighter-bombers, and Mi-24 helicopters--before the FANT column withdrew to Chadian soil.

The fighting was at least temporarily suspended on September 11, 1987, when both leaders accepted a cease-fire proposed by the OAU. Chadian efforts to regain the Aozou Strip were halted, and Libyan bombings were terminated. As of early 1988, the OAU Ad Hoc Committee on the Border Dispute was continuing to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict, but prospects for success were not considered to be bright.

Data as of December 1988

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