Muammar Qaddafi didn't even pause. Just after Francois Mitterrand sent the Libyan leader his strongest warning yet, dispatching several hundred French paratroopers to Chad, the Libyan leader sent his troops blasting into the strategic town of Faya-Largeau.
The raging battle, in which both sides were claiming victory Wednesday evening, signaled a dramatic escalation of Chad's civil war. The conflict now threatens to pit France against Libya in a direct battle for the central African country, with American advisers on the sidelines.
An estimated 2,000 Libyan troops with Libyan air, artillery, and armor support joined more than 1,500 Chadian rebels in an attack on Faya-Largeau Wednesday morning. The attack followed heavy artillery shelling from Libyan positions the night before, according to Chadian officials.
A rebel spokesman in Paris said Wednesday that Faya-Largeau had fallen. Chadian government officials said its 2,000 troops had repelled the attack. Observers in Paris said it was impossible to tell what the situation was in Faya-Largeau, but French, Chadian, and American officials confirmed that heavy fighting was in progress in the town, and the situation for Chadian government forces was grave.
France insisted that its troops were being sent into Chad strictly to train Chadian forces and to assist transmission of information on Libyan positions from American AWACS electronic surveillance planes.
Although the French troops are to be stationed in the capital of N'Djamena and may not have a role in the battle, their noncombat role may depend on just how far Qaddafi plans to go in Chad.
''It is not France which is taking the initiative of internationalizing this conflict,'' said French Defense Minister Charles Hernu. ''It is the Libyans who have done that. Whatever the Libyans do, we will match, except of course bombing civilian populations.''
Libyan designs on sub-Saharan Africa frighten Paris and the Reagan administration, and even to a greater extent, France's ex-colonies in western Africa. The conservative African leaders and President Reagan pushed France to act more firmly in its traditional sphere of influence. As the size of the Libyan threat became evident, Mitterrand decided that he needed no more pushing.
The dispatch of French troops represents a significant escalation of the French role in the conflict. Although France has provided emergency arms shipments and about a dozen ''civilian'' advisers to aid Chad's President Hissein Habre in his fight against Libyan-backed rebels, until now it has resisted Mr. Habre's pleas for troops or planes.
But the number of French paratroopers being dispatched to Chad seems to be rising by the minute. At first it was reported that 180 soldiers were being sent. But later reports said as many as 500 were going to Chad. Defense officials refused to confirm these reports, but they did not deny them either. One official said, ''The number could rise quickly.''
How quickly will depend on the course of the war. If Qaddafi's forces capture Faya-Largeau and start heading south toward the capital, direct French intervention seems in order. No French official at time of writing would specifically discuss the French response to such a move, but hard words of warning to Libya are offered.
''We want to have good relations with the Libyans. But if Libya continues to be aggressive, it will have to face the consequences,'' said a French Foreign Ministry official.
The French have the military means to back up these tough words. There are about 8,000 French soldiers stationed in Africa, and the French Air Force has Jaguar strike aircraft stationed in Senegal and Gabon.
Four of these planes took off this week from their base in Libreville, Gabon. According to reports in the French press, they have not returned to Gabon but have been moved to a base closer to Chad in the Central African Republic.
In addition to the military means, in the past the French have demonstrated a will to use force in Chad. Since Paris granted Chad independence in 1960, French forces have intervened four times in the country's seemingly never-ending civil war. In 1978, France sent about 2,000 troops to Chad. They played a key role in settling the conflict. Only a few months after they returned to their bases, though, Chad's different factions were once again at war.
The French would rather stay out of Chad than repeat this messy scenario. Mr. Mitterrand's Socialist government has also been hesitant to intervene militarily in France's former colonies for ideological reasons. While in opposition, the Socialists called such interventions ''neocolonial'' behavior.
As a result, until now the French have preferred to try to exert quiet pressure on Qaddafi to desist from his adventurism in Chad. Unlike the United States, the French have offered few harsh words in public about the Libyan leader. Unlike the US, too, the French still have diplomatic relations with Tripoli, and French officials say they have been trying to talk reason to Qaddafi through these diplomatic channels.
But with Libyan forces apparently tightening their grip around Faya-Largeau, the French have decided that force is the only language Qaddafi understands. Thus, the dispatching of French troops and the warning to Qaddafi that if he persists, more firepower may be forthcoming.
(Monitor contributor Gary Marx reports from Chad: Not only are Habre's government troops vastly outnumbered by the combined Libyan-rebel forces, but reliable Chadian sources indicate that Libyan air strikes have temporarily knocked out the airstrip at Faya-Largeau, leaving Habre's forces isolated and without any means of receiving supplies.
(In addition, at time of writing Western diplomats in N'Djamena report that two additional Libyan armored columns - each containing as many as 250 vehicles - are approaching Faya-Largeau.)