By John Irish and Tangi Salaün
PARIS, April 20 (Reuters) - Chad's longtime ruler President Idriss Deby, a Western ally in the fight against Islamist militants in Africa, was killed on the frontline against rebels in the north.
His main ally, France, has about 5,100 troops based across the region as part of international efforts to fight Islamist militants, including its main base in the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
His death, which Paris described as the loss of a courageous friend who had sought peace and stability for three decades, poses questions on the future of France's regional operations.
WHY IS CHAD AN IMPORTANT ALLY TO WESTERN POWERS?
Nestled in between Libya, Niger, Central African Republic, Sudan, Nigeria and Cameroon, Chad is a strategic outpost for France and the United States in the fight against Islamist militants across the Sahel and Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as for monitoring political instability in neighbouring countries.
Deby has in recent years stepped into a void left by Africa’s traditional heavyweights and turned his desert nation into a powerbroker as France sought to disengage from its former colonies, most notably after a rebellion in Central African Republic in 2013.
Highlighting his importance, in February 2019, French warplanes and drones struck Chadian rebels advancing on the capital to ensure its interests were not put at risk during a critical stage in operations against Islamist militants in the region. Sources said Paris would only intervene directly again if those interests were put in danger.
France provided intelligence and logistical support against a new rebellion launched this month, but stopped short of direct action amid growing unease in French domestic political circles at the prospect of Deby winning re-election for a sixth time, extending his 30 years in power.
HOW EFFECTIVE HAS CHAD BEEN IN FIGHT AGAINST ISLAMISTS?
Chadian troops were in 2020 mostly engaged in fighting insurgents from Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa in the Lake Chad region.
Chad’s armed forces are among the most respected and battle hardened in West Africa. That reputation was forged after 2,000 troops took part in a French-led mission in 2013 to hunt down al Qaeda fighters in the deserts of northern Mali marking Chad out as the only African nation to quickly deploy an effective fighting force.
However, there have been concerns over discipline and accusations of acts against civilians in during their operations.
The deployment of a battalion of 1,500 men to the tri-border theatre between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger earlier this year was seen as a vital to enable French and other forces to re-orient their military mission to central Mali and to target Islamist leaders linked to al Qaeda.
France has bet on local forces eventually taking control of their own security to withdraw its 5,100 troops from the region.
WHAT MILITARY ASSETS DOES FRANCE, ALLIES HAVE IN CHAD?
Chad's capital N'Djamena is the central command hub for France's Barkhane counter-terrorism operation for the West Africa region. Just under 1,000 troops are based there along with a few Mirage 2000 fighter jets.
The G5 Sahel, which brings together troops from Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, has its command centre in the previous headquarters of France's Epervier mission from the 1980s, when Paris supported Chad against a Libyan offensive on the country.
As well as its main operations, France has two forward operating bases in Faya-Largeau in the centre of the country with one eye on the northern border with Libya and Abeche near the borders with Sudan and Central African Republic.
The United States also has had a small military presence in the country to help in training, equipping and capacity building. A U.S. official said there have been less than 70 US military personnel in the country.
WHAT WILL BE THE IMMEDIATE CONCERNS FOR FRANCE/ALLIES? France and its allies will be looking to see how the political handover happens in the coming days. With Deby technically still president for the next few weeks, the head of the National Assembly should have taken over. However, with the military announcing Deby's son, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, also know as Kaka, as interim president that could lead to a further destabilisation in the capital.
All eyes will also turn to the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), which had embarked on the offensive against Deby. If the advance were to gather steam now, that could force Paris' hands, although it will seek to avoid intervening directly given the general uncertainty and impact it could have on the wider Sahel operations.
With possible panic setting in the capital, there will also be concerns that a new humanitarian and refugee crisis beginning should people start converging from N'Djamena to the Cameroon border
(Writing by John Irish; Editing by Angus MacSwan)