France stepping up its role in Chad to support Woddei, undercut Libya

France's decision to give Chad logistical support illustrates Socialist President Francois Mitterrand's readiness to help reduce Libyan influence and generally play a more active role in Africa.

The French aid, not yet officially described, is said to include small arms and ammunition.

Meanwhile, they have pushed hard for an Organization of African Unity (OAU) peacekeeping force to replace some 10,000 Libyan troops now backing Chadian President Goukhouni Woddei.

Certain West African countries - former French colonies - have wanted help from Paris against what they see as subversion from Tripoli ever since Libyan military elements appeared in Chad a year ago. They came onto the scene during heavy fighting between President Woddei and his ousted Defense Minister Hissein Habre's Armed Forces of the North.

Under former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, France refused to become involved when Col. Muammar Qaddafi dispatched his troops to Chad to help President Woddei destroy the bulk of Habre's army, forcing it to retreat to the desert mountains along the Sudanese border.

It is evident that Socialist France wishes to be considered a reliable partner among its African allies. In September Mr. Mitterrand met with President Woddei in Paris in a first move to wean him away from Libya.

Then in early October, France revealed a peace plan for Chad, a former French colony that has suffered from periodic outbursts of civil war in recent years.

The plan called for the training and reorganization of a new Chad army by French advisers in neighboring Cameroon.

The proposal for a pan-African force to replace the Libyans, first made at the OAU's June conference in Nairobi, quickly foundered when none of the member nations seemed willing or able to commit troops.

Then last week, at the Cancun summit, Mr. Mitterrand appealed for the immediate creation of an OAU force. Since then, Senegal, Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt have agreed to participate in a peace operation.

Concern over Chad's future became more acute when it was learned three weeks ago that Qaddafi was pressuring Woddei to sign an agreement permitting the merger of Chad with Libya. If Woddei refused to cede, he was told Libya would back the soldiers of his political rival, Foreign Minister Ahmat Acyl.

Woddei has appealed to the French to act quickly. French support would not only relieve him of Libyan pressure but also give his regime the legitimacy it needs to survive.

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