N’DJAMENA (Reuters) – Thousands of people gathered in Chad’s capital N’Djamena on Friday for the state funeral of President Idriss Deby, whose death while leading his troops against a rebel offensive has thrown the country into crisis.
Mourners included President Emmanuel Macron of France, which counted on the long-ruling strongman as a lynchpin in the war against Islamist militants, and a host of African presidents and prime ministers.
Rebel forces meanwhile said their command centre was bombed on Wednesday night in an attempt to kill their own leader.
The rebels swept south this month across the vast desert nation from their bases in Libya towards N’Djamena and say they are about 200-300 km (125-190 miles) from the capital. They called a temporary ceasefire to allow Deby’s funeral to take place.
Before the ceremony on Friday morning, Macron and regional leaders met with Deby’s son Mahamat Idriss Deby and members of the military transition council that has taken charge in N’Djamena.
They offered their common support towards a civilian-military transition in Chad for the good of regional stability, a French presidency source said.
“Unity of views. The G5 is mobilised alongside Chad,” the source said.
The so-called G5 Sahel countries are Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – all beset by Islamist militant threats.
The 37-year-old Mahamat Idriss Deby, who holds the rank of general, has dissolved parliament and taken over as president and armed forces commander.
The self-appointed council has said it will hold democratic elections in 18 months. But opposition leaders have condemned the takeover as a coup and called for a campaign of civil disobedience, while an army general said many officers were also opposed to the transition plan. Unions have also called a worker’s strike.
The late president, whose 30-year rule was marked by repression, was an ally of Western powers and his death has raised worries that more turmoil and uncertainty will hamper the fight against Islamist militants who are spreading across Africa.
Thousands of people gathered in a solemn mood in N’Djamena’s main Place de la Nation to pay their respects to him.
Dignitaries exchanged greetings on red carpets under the square’s silver arches, while women dressed in black wiped away tears.
Deby’s coffin, draped in a national flag, was carried on a military pickup truck flanked by a motorcycle escort. Loud weeping swelled from the crowd as it arrived at the square and a 21-gun salute boomed across the city. Macron was the first dignitary to approach the coffin, bowing before it.
“He protected us for so long that today we have come to wish him eternal rest. A deserved rest,” said N’Djamena resident Hassan Adoum, who attended the ceremony.
ON THE FRONTLINE
Rebels of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) said that warplanes had bombed their centre on Wednesday night in an attempt to kill their leader, Mahamat Mahadi Ali. They accused France of supporting the raid with aerial surveillance.
“Our command was bombed on the orders of the military junta with the complicity of foreign agencies present in our country,” FACT said in a statement.
The group, which was formed by dissident officers in 2016 and is not linked to Islamists, did not specify where the command post was located or give details of any casualties or damage.
The French army said on Friday it had not carried out any air strikes this week in Chad. Chad’s army did not respond to a request for comment.
French diplomatic and military sources have indicated that Paris would seriously consider intervening if the rebels were to close in on N’Djamena and threaten the stability of the country, a former French colony.
“Things will heat up and that could force us to intervene at one point,” a French diplomatic source told Reuters. “We saw from Central Africa that it is harder to stabilise a country once the chaos is in place.”
An immediate objective was to persuade Mahamat Idriss Deby to reduce the transition period and forge unity within the establishment, the source said.
(Reporting by Edward McAllister and Madjiasra Nako; Additional reporting by John Irish and Tangi Salaun in Paris; Writing by Hereward Holland and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Frances Kerry)