Rebels in Chad threatened to depose the son of the country’s slain president after he was named interim leader of the central African nation, raising the specter Wednesday of a potentially violent power struggle.
Uncertainty prevailed early Wednesday over how far the rebel column was from N’Djamena, a city of 1 million people, and whether the military would remain loyal to Mahamat Deby Itno in the aftermath of his father’s death after three decades in power.
The rebel group that the military blamed for President Idriss Deby Itno’s death said late Tuesday that its forces were “heading toward N’Djamena at this very moment.”
“Chad is not a monarchy,” said a statement from the group known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad. “There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country.”
The group’s claim of advancing toward the capital could not be independently verified, but it immediately created panic in N’Djamena, which another rebel group attacked back in 2008.
Officials with the Transitional Military Council said the fight was not yet over for control of the country.
“The security situation remains highly serious given the persistence and magnitude of the terrorist threat,” the council’s vice president, Djimadoum Tiraina, said, adding that the military must now “prevent the country from sinking into chaos and anarchy.”
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Chad’s military spokesman said Tuesday that the president died during a visit to the front lines of the battle against the rebel group. The rebels were based in neighboring Libya until earlier this month, when authorities say they crossed over into Chad on the country’s April 11 Election Day.
Deby ran for a a sixth term in that election and faced minimal opposition after several challengers chose not to take part, fearing the vote would be rigged. Over the years, the president had survived numerous armed rebellions and managed to stay in power until the insurgency led by the Front for Change and Concord in Chad.
The circumstances of Deby’s death could not be independently confirmed due to the remote location of the fighting. Some observers initially feared a coup had taken place since the military immediately handed power to his son for an 18-month transitional period instead of following constitutional protocol.
HIs son, Mahamat Deby Itno, 37, is best known as a top commander of the Chadian forces aiding a UN peacekeeping mission in northern Mali.
“There is a great deal of uncertainty around how events in Chad will unfold: Whether the army will stay loyal to Deby’s son and continue the effort to repel the advancing rebels,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow with the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
Chadians fed up after 30 years of Deby’s rule could also align with demands for a leadership change, he said.
“Either scenario presents a high risk of civilian casualties and a likelihood that fleeing civilians or soldiers could export Chad’s instability to neighboring states,” Hudson said.
The United Nations has about 1,800 staff members in Chad and was “watching the situation hour by hour,” Stephane Dujarric, the spokesperson for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said in New York.
Deby, a former army commander-in-chief, was a major French ally in the fight against Islamic extremism in Africa, hosting the base for the French military’s Operation Barkhane and supplying critical troops to the peacekeeping effort in northern Mali.
“What’s central to us now is that a process of democratic transition can be implemented and the stability of Chad preserved,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Tuesday in Paris.
Deby first came to power in 1990 when his rebel forces overthrew then-President Hissene Habre, who was later convicted of human rights abuses at an international tribunal in Senegal.