Disputes Raiders of the Armed Toyotas

Libya loses face, a base and a bomber in its war with Chad

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Wrapped in desert scarves against the blowing sand, some 2,000 Chadian troops raced into southern Libya aboard four-wheel-drive Toyota pickups mounted with machine guns. The raiders overran the Maaten es Sarra military base 60 miles inside Libya and demolished all the arms and aircraft they could find. Then, traveling without lights beneath the moon and stars, the troops sped home. It was the first time Chad had invaded Libya since their border conflict began 14 years ago. Officials in N'Djamena, Chad's capital, claimed that the attack killed 1,713 Libyans and destroyed 26 planes and at least 70 tanks. Libya disputed the figures, but the casualties appeared to be the heaviest of the war. The raid, declared Chad, "must be written in gold letters in the great book of victories."

Only a week earlier the Libyans had managed to reverse a string of Chadian victories by retaking a key oasis town near the border. Angered by the setback at Maaten es Sarra, Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi last week ordered a retaliatory air strike on N'Djamena. But as two Soviet-built Tupolev-22 bombers approached the capital, French troops fired a U.S.-made Hawk antiaircraft missile. One of the jets exploded in a green phosphorescent fireball, and the other fled toward Libya. Two other Tupolevs later struck the town of Abeche, some 400 miles to the east, killing two civilians but missing their target, an airstrip.

The downing over N'Djamena provoked a shrill outcry in Tripoli. The Libyan news agency JANA called the raid a "combined Franco-American military action" and charged that Washington and Paris were "behind the aggression against Libya." In Paris, Libyan diplomats accused France of bearing "direct responsibility" for the escalation of the war. Libyan Ambassador Hamed el Houderi warned that "those who put oil on the fire risked getting burned."

The failed air raid marked a turning point in France's role in the conflict, which has raged over Libyan claims to the reputedly uranium-rich Aozou Strip in northern Chad. While France maintains a 1,300-troop garrison in Chad and has provided some $90 million in military aid this year to its former colony, the French have resisted being drawn deeper into the conflict. Defense Minister Andre Giraud expressed "deepest regrets" over the stepped-up fighting, though he declared that France will continue to defend the Chadian capital from attack. Premier Jacques Chirac last week repeated calls for a "negotiated solution" to the war. Though France supports Chadian President Hissene Habre's claim to the Aozou Strip, the Chirac government would prefer to have the issue settled by international arbitration. Chad's African neighbors take similar positions. At week's end Chad and Libya agreed to accept a cease-fire proposed by the Organization of African Unity. Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda said he was seeking to begin peace talks between the two countries.

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