A battle is in the making in remote western Sudan. Intelligence analysts in the Middle East -- Western, Egyptian, and Israeli -- believe that a buildup of forces by Libya in Chad and by Chadian rebel Hissein Habre at his bases in eastern Chad and northwestern Sudan foreshadows clashes.
These, in turn, could affect the tense standoff now in effect between Libya, sudan, and Egypt. And that could also draw in Nigeria, France, and other big powers.
But whatever eventually happens will depend on the stands taken in the capitals of Nigeria, Libya, France, and Egypt.
Egyptian officials in effect have drawn the line with Libya in the Sudan, warning that an attack or subversion that endangers the regime of President Jaafar Numeiry would be answered by Egypt. Egyptian sources say the response to such an attack would almost surely occur in the Sudan-Chad region rather than being directed at Libyan territory.
Mr. Numiery's statements the past few weeks included a call for the outright overthrow of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi and were echoed by an unstintingly anti-Qaddafi stand by Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. This indicates, says one pro-Egyptian source, "that Egypt and Sudan are more and more serious about deterring Qaddafi; they don't want anyone to forget what happened in Chad."
(There Libya was the decisive factor late last year in gaining control of the country for President Goukhouni Woddei.)
"Egypt would stop a threat to the Sudan," a Western source told the Monitor recently. "But short of an outright Libyan incursion in Sudan, the current situation will depend on French and OAU [Organization of African Unity] roles."
France, according to Israeli analysts, now has seven battalions in Niger and is showing a "growing willingness to help" African regimes against Qaddafi. They key to the OAU is Nigeria, which at first disappointed Egypt and Sudan with its lukewarm response to the Libyan action in Chad. Now, however, investigations into riots in the Nigerian city of Kano late last year have pointed in the direction of Tripoli, Qaddafi's capital.
Most analysts agree that what happens next will depend most on Libya and how it responds to moves by Egypt, Sudan, France, and African nations to strengthen rebel leader Habre's hand.
Habre now has 500 to 1,000 men. He is opposed by Chadian forces of 2,000 to 3,000. But these are split into three factions, each of about 600 to 1,000, including those loyal to President Woueddi, to Foreign Minister Ahmat Acyl and to Vice-President Wadal Kamougue.
The split in Chadian ranks, say some analysts, means that Libya will probably be Habre's only effective opposition in the near future. The factions are believed to be preserving their strength for an eventual power struggle.
Thus the tripwire could be hit by Libya in hot pursuit of Habre's men. Or, as an Israeli analyst points out, Egypt and Sudan could stage an incident "that could never be proven or disproven" in the isolated border territory and then "give Qaddafi a lesson in Chad."
Most sources, however, believe the situation offers considerable da nger for Mr. Numiery's regime in Sudan.