N'DJAMENA, Chad (AP) — Rebels in Chad threatened to depose the son of the country's slain president after he was named interim leader of the strategic central African nation, raising the specter Wednesday of a potentially violent power struggle.
It was not certain how close the rebel column was to N'Djamena, the capital city of 1 million people, or whether the military would remain loyal to Mahamat Idriss Deby following his father's sudden death after three decades in power.
The rebel group that the military blamed for President Idriss Deby Itno's killing said late Tuesday that its forces were “heading toward N’Djamena at this very moment.”
“Chad is not a monarchy,” said a statement from the group known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad. “There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country.”
The group's claim of advancing toward the capital could not be independently verified, but it immediately created panic in N’Djamena, which another rebel group attacked back in 2008.
The ruling Transitional Military Council warned that the fight was not yet over for control of Chad.
“The security situation remains highly serious given the persistence and magnitude of the terrorist threat,” the council's vice president, Djimadoum Tiraina, said, adding that the military must now “prevent the country from sinking into chaos and anarchy.”
Chad's military spokesman said Tuesday that the president died during a visit to the front lines of the battle against the rebel group. The rebels were based in neighboring Libya until earlier this month, when authorities say they crossed over into Chad on the country's April 11 election day.
Deby ran for a sixth term in that election and faced minimal opposition after several challengers chose not to take part, fearing the vote would be rigged. Over the years, the president had survived numerous armed rebellions and managed to stay in power until the insurgency led by the Front for Change and Concord in Chad.
The rebels are led by Mahamat Mahadi Ali, who formed the shadowy group known by its French acronym, FACT, in 2016 after leaving another rebel group, the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development.
Until earlier this month, FACT forces had been based in southern Libya, where they claimed neutrality in the Libyan conflict. However, a recent U.N. experts’ report found that FACT forces in southern Libya were guarding Libyan military bases under the command of Field Marshall Khalifa Hifter.
The circumstances of Deby’s death could not be independently confirmed due to the remote location of the fighting. Some observers initially feared a coup had taken place since the military immediately handed power to his son for an 18-month transitional period instead of following constitutional protocol.
HIs son, Mahamat Idriss Deby, 37, is best known as a top commander of the Chadian forces aiding a U.N. peacekeeping mission in northern Mali.
“There is a great deal of uncertainty around how events in Chad will unfold: Whether the army will stay loyal to Deby’s son and continue the effort to repel the advancing rebels,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
Chadians fed up after 30 years of Deby’s rule could also align with demands for a leadership change, he said.
“Either scenario presents a high risk of civilian casualties and a likelihood that fleeing civilians or soldiers could export Chad’s instability to neighboring states,” Hudson said.
The United Nations has about 1,800 staff members in Chad and was “watching the situation hour by hour,” Stephane Dujarric, the spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said in New York.
Deby, a former army commander-in-chief, was a major French ally in the fight against Islamic extremism in Africa, hosting the base for the French military’s Operation Barkhane and supplying critical troops to the peacekeeping effort in northern Mali.
“What’s central to us now is that a process of democratic transition can be implemented and the stability of Chad preserved,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Tuesday in Paris.
Deby first came to power in 1990 when his rebel forces overthrew then-President Hissene Habre, who was later convicted of human rights abuses at an international tribunal in Senegal.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Sam Magdy in Cairo; Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Jennifer Peltz at the United Nations contributed.