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US feels pressure to give military assistance to Chad. As fighting between Chad and Libya continues, the US and France look anxiously on. In Washington, the debate is over sending Stinger missiles to Chad.

By E.A. WayneStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1987


Fighting between Chad and Libya over a strip of desert borderland is taking on new intensity with the first major battle inside Libya and an attempted air attack on Chad's capital last weekend. Official and other observers in Washington had expected the war might spread into Libya, sparking new pressures on France and the United States to support Chad more actively. One of the decisions Washington is wrestling with is whether to supply Chad with portable antiaircraft missiles called ``Stingers'' for use against Libyan planes in the north of the country. During the weekend, Chad's troops routed a Libyan column apparently inside Chad and chased it back to its base in Libya - the first major Chadian penetration of Libya in this long border dispute. Chad's troops reportedly captured the Libyan base, Matan as Sarra, and set about destroying the aircraft and other materials in place. This base had reportedly been used in Libyan bombing attacks on Chad since the new round of fighting began in early August.

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In response to Chad's actions Libya launched new air raids inside Chad, further south than their attacks earlier this month. An attempt to strike N'Djamena, Chad's capital, sparked the first overt response in this round of fighting by the 1,200-man French military mission in southern Chad. French forces shot down a Libyan bomber and sent several jets up to intercept other Libyan planes.

France has told Chad's President, Hissein Habr'e, that he is on his own in trying to retake by military force the disputed, 44,000-square-mile Aozou strip and has urged him to seek international mediation. However, senior French officials repeated again this weekend that France remains committed to defending ``Chad's territorial integrity'' and to responding militarily to any attack south of the 16th Parallel. France had hoped to maintain a low profile in the current fighting.

Libya has strongly protested the French shooting of its plane and charged France and the US with direct participation in the conflict. Libyan threats that those aiding Chad could be ``burned'' have raised prospects of Libyan sponsored terrorist attacks.

The new developments in the war may force a reticent France to play a more active role in the fighting, particularly if Libya continues to hit areas that France has pledged to defend. Washington also feels pressure to show its support for Chad, officials say.

Although US officials refuse to comment directly on any US decision to provide Stingers, sources in and out of government explain that Chad has sought the Stinger so it can strike Libyan aircraft flying at higher altitudes and with shorter in-range profiles than their US ``redeyes'' and Soviet SAM 7-2s (captured from Libya) can hit. These sources say Libya had taken advantage of its dominant air power and the long supply routes for Chad's forces to stage repeated high-level bombings of outposts in the north of Chad and to recapture the village of Aozou on Aug. 28, three weeks after Chad took it in daring Jeep-led attack.

Outside observers and US officials see more involved than two small states squabbling over a few miles of sand.