In Chad, put refugees first

An armed rebellion in Chad threatens hundreds of thousands of refugees.

An attempted coup in Africa's Chad has put the UN, and particularly France, on alert. At stake is the care of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Darfur and Chad, and a new refugee stream created by the fighting. In this tricky case, humanitarian considerations must be paramount.

The current trouble began Feb. 2 when rebels advanced into Chad's capital, N'Djamena, and made it to the palace of President Idriss Déby. Government forces pushed them back to the city's outskirts in fierce fighting, which set off a mass exodus of residents to neighboring Cameroon.

Mr. Déby is no Mr. Clean. He came to power through revolt, has held his position through unfair elections, and heads a corrupt government that's skimming his country's oil profits. But his ouster would pose a great danger to huge numbers of refugees who have already suffered terribly.

These refugees, about 420,000 of them, sit in camps in eastern Chad, which borders the Sudanese province of Darfur. They are among the 2.5 million displaced by the Darfur genocide and by violence in the border region. They depend completely on humanitarian aid, which is delivered via N'Djamena at the western end of Chad.

Were the rebels to take over or if instability reigned, this aid would be at risk. The rebels oppose the arrival of European Union forces, or EUFOR, which were to be deployed this week to protect Chad's eastern refugee camps. More worrisome, the rebels are presumed to be supported by Sudan, which also opposes the 3,700-strong EUFOR.

With a Sudan-friendly government installed in Chad and no European troop protection, the refugees would be fully exposed to their Sudanese enemies and marauding bandits.

This grave situation prompted the United Nations Security Council this week to condemn the rebel attack and to call "upon member states to provide support" to Chad's government. That support can only come from Chad's former colonial master, France, which has about 1,800 troops – backed by fighter jets – in the country.

And yet France is in a tight spot. Its new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants to break with past foreign policy and no longer prop up corrupt African authoritarians just because they are pro-France (Chad's Déby is a French-trained pilot).

On the other hand, Mr. Sarkozy is pushing France as a leader in dealing with humanitarian crises, and indeed, most of the EUFOR troops waiting to deploy are French. Their neutral label would be questioned in the region were the French military to rescue Chad from the rebels, as it did under Jacques Chirac in 2006.

France has walked this fine line by providing military assistance only to evacuate N'Djamena and protect its airport. Not until it received UN cover this week did Sarkozy say that France was ready to intervene if needed.

Perhaps that won't be necessary. The rebels seem cowed by the UN's response and the threat of French force.

Still, the various players in this region aren't going away. As France and other nations continue to deal with the violence in Chad and Darfur, they must let humanitarian concerns be their guide. That also means deploying those promised EUFOR troops – tout de suite.

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