After almost two months of continuous fighting, the Chad conflict has ground to a halt. During the past five days, there have been no Libyan air attacks or rebel infantry assaults on government Army positions.
This ''temporary respite from war'' - as a Western official terms it - is the result of a military stalemate that has left the Libyans and their Chadian rebel allies controlling the northern half of Chad. President Hissein Habre's Army, supported by French and Zairian paratroopers, controls southern Chad.
il5l,0,10l,3p6 It is an uneasy arrangement.
According to Western military analysts in N'Djamena, the military stalemate began to develop last weekend when Libyan air strikes on government positions at Oum Chalouba, Kalait, and Koro Toro began to taper off.
This Libyan military retrenchment, Western diplomats here say, occurred as a direct result of the announcement that France and Zaire were deploying a large number of troops to frontline positions.
Since that time, Libyan air attacks have ceased completely. France and Zaire have increased both the total number of their troops in Chad and the numbers of troops at Salal and Abeche, the most critical frontline positions. France now has 1,000 soldiers in Chad; Zaire has approximately 2,300.
(According to a report in Le Monde Wednesday, the number of French troops deployed in Chad will exceed 1,000 within 48 hours and may reach 2,000 by the weekend. Le Monde says further that unnamed Defense Ministry sources say the troop strength in Chad may reach 3,000 in the future.)
At Salal, the government's frontline position in the west some 220 miles north of the capital, N'Djamena, there are some 200 crack French paratroopers armed with antitank weapons, heavy artillery, and other weapons. Salal is about halfway between the capital and Faya-Largeau, which was taken by rebel forces Aug. 11.
Assisting the French are some 200 Zairian paratroopers stationed at Moussoro, some 80 miles south of Salal.
In eastern Chad, France has stationed 150 paratroopers at Abeche, President Habre's key base and most important military supply facility. Abeche is 400 miles from N'Djamena on the only eastern road that goes to the capital.
In addition to these French troops at Abeche - who, according to Western military sources may soon be joined by additional French forces - there are an undisclosed number of Zairian paratroopers.
Thus, in the past week French and Zairian troops have firmly entrenched themselves at President Habre's two most important front-line positions along the only two roads providing access to the capital from the north.
French President Francois Mitterrand and his military advisers in Chad continue to insist that French troops are acting only as ''instructors'' training Chadians. But the commander of the French forces in Chad, Col. Bernard Messana, says, ''We will fire back if fired upon'' - a not so subtle reminder to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi that he will meet a firm response if he advances on French positions in Chad.
(According to United Press International, Egyptian Defense Minister Abdul-Halim Ghazzala said Wednesday that Egypt is supplying Chad government forces with Soviet-made rockets. But he said Egypt would not send troops to Chad.)
It is the recent deployment of French and Zairian troops at the key government front-line positions that has forced Colonel Qaddafi and his Chadian rebel allies to halt their drive toward N'Djamena.
As a Western military analyst in Chad's capital explains, ''The French have now blocked the only two roads leading to N'Djamena and they have made it clear that if the Libyans attacked, they would answer with both their ground forces and their fighter aircraft (currently stationed in Niger and the Central African Republic). This is obviously something Colonel Qaddafi does not want to do.''
With the military situation deadlocked, Western and African diplomats are hoping that the Chadian conflict will move from a military phase toward negotiation.
Although the five-day lull in the fighting has raised the possibility of a negotiated settlement involving Libya, the rebels, and President Habre's government, most independent observers and diplomats are not optimistic that such a settlement could be reached.
As a Western diplomat here explains, ''The two sides are just too far apart. It seems almost impossible that a compromise could be found.''
To begin with, a Chadian official says, neither the Libyans and the rebels, on the one hand, nor the Chadian government on the other could agree on who should participate in any peace negotiations.
While Colonel Qaddafi insists that any peace talks should take place directly between the rebels (whom he considers to be the ''legitimate Chadian government in exile'') and President Habre, Habre refuses even to acknowledge the rebels - insisting that they are merely the instruments of Libyan expansionist aims. Any negotiations, Habre says, should be directly between his government and Libya.
A Chadian asks: ''How can you have peace talks if the people involved in the dispute cannot even agree on who should be at the negotiations?''
Even if an acceptable formula was worked out among the Libyans, the rebels, and the Chad government on the proper representatives in peace negotiations, it would be difficult to find common ground, since Habre and the rebels have set different minimum requirements for ending the hostilities.
Libya insists that peace talks could begin only after the Chadian government formally acknowledges Libya's annexation of the Aozou Strip, the mineral-rich area in northern Chad that it has occupied since 1973. Habre has repeatedly stated that negotiations could begin only after the Libyans relinquished all Chadian territory occupied since the June 24 offensive - in addition to the Aozou Strip.
In explaining Habre's position, one Western diplomat observes, ''He (Habre) is a fierce nationalist. He could never negotiate with the Libyans as long as they continued to occupy Chadian territory.''
Most Chadians seem to agree. ''There can never be peace in Chad,'' a resident of N'Djamena says, ''as long as the Libyans are in our country.''
President Habre repeated this position at a recent press conference in the capital. Dressed in a finely laced, purple djellaba and surrounded by dozens of his desert warriors carrying Kalashnikov rifles and other assorted weapons, Habre firmly acknowledged that he would not accept any negotiated settlement that would compromise the territorial integrity of Chad.
''We think that in war, diplomacy and other solutions should be used,'' the President explained. ''We have never stopped trying to find a peaceful solution (to the conflict), but today we have a de facto partition of Chad and the Libyans continue to attack us. A peaceful solution does not depend on Chad. It is up to Libya. Will they respect the territorial sovereignty of Chad?''
With both Qaddafi and President Habre unwilling to compromise, it is the French - with their extensive political and economic interests in both countries - who are trying to get the two sides together to work out some type of solution.
While on the surface it might appear that France, by committing some 1,000 troops to defend Habre's government, would be in a poor position to impartially negotiate a settlement, the French ''have not committed themselves completely to President Habre's cause,'' a Western observer says. ''The French were reluctant to come into Chad in the first place and while they have agreed to stop any further Libyan offensives, they have not complied with President Habre's request to drive the Libyans out of the Chadian territory they already occupy.''
Still, most Western and African diplomats believe there is little chance for success.
The French are caught in a no-win situation, a Westerner says. With Habre and Qaddafi adamant about their demands, and with French leverage limited by substantial interests in both countries, it is impossible for France to pressure either side successfully or to find any common ground for agreement, he says.
Thus, even with the military situation in Chad deadlocked for the first time since the most recent round of the conflict began two months ago, the prospects for a negotiated settlement seem as distant as ever.
President Habre himself admitted at the end of his press conference on Tuesday, ''We are in favor of a search for a peaceful solution in Chad, but the experience of the past 17 years teaches us to be prudent and not to believe in miracles.''