Chad’s President Idriss Déby has died following injuries sustained in clashes with rebels in the north of the country at the weekend, the Army has said.
The announcement came a day after provisional election results showed he was on his way to winning a sixth term in office.
The government and parliament have been dissolved, while a curfew was also imposed with the borders shut.
Déby, 68, spent more than three decades in power and was one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.
An army officer by training, he came to power in 1990 through an armed uprising.
He was a long-time ally of France and other Western powers in the battle against jihadist groups in the Sahel region of Africa.
The Chadian leader “breathed his last defending the sovereign nation on the battlefield,” an army general said on state TV Tuesday.
He had gone to the front line, several hundred kilometres north of the capital N’Djamena, at the weekend to visit troops battling rebels belonging to a group calling itself Fact (the Front for Change and Concord in Chad).
Son named head
A military council led by Déby’s son, a 37-year-old four star general, will govern for the next 18 months.
Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno will lead the council but “free and democratic” elections will be held once the transition period is over, the army said in its statement.
Ahead of the election April 11, Déby campaigned on a platform of bringing peace and security to the region.
But there has been growing unhappiness over his government’s management of Chad’s oil resources.
In his analysis of the situation in Chad, BBC African Correspondent, Andrew Harding, writes:
Idriss Déby was known as that rare thing – a true warrior president. The former rebel and trained pilot was the opposite of an arm-chair general.
For 30 years he clung to power in Chad – a vast nation that straddles the Sahara and is surrounded by some of the continent’s most protracted conflicts.
And Déby had a hand in every one of them. From Darfur to Libya, Mali, Nigeria and the Central African Republic. His troops were among the most battle-hardened on the planet.
Domestically, he had become an increasingly autocratic figure. His latest election victory saw him claim nearly 80% of the vote.
It is unclear if the poor, feuding, brittle state he leaves behind can manage a smooth transition.
And there are wider concerns too. For years, President Déby was the West’s indispensable ally in the war against Islamist militants – in Mali, Niger and beyond.
His death leaves a vacuum that many may now fight to fill.
Founded in 2016 by disillusioned former army officers, the rebel Fact group accuses President Déby of repression in the run-up to the election.
They built up their base in Libya in the Tibesti Mountains, which straddle northern Chad and part of southern Libya.
On election day the group mounted an attack on a border post and gradually advanced on N’Djamena.
The latest clashes began on Saturday. An army general told Reuters news agency that 300 insurgents were killed and 150 were captured. Five government soldiers were killed and 36 were injured, he said. The figures could not immediately be verified.
Some foreign embassies in the capital have urged their staff to leave.
N’Djamena has come under rebel attack before and there was panic in the city on Monday, with parents taking their children home from school, when tanks were deployed along the main roads.
Observers on chain of events
Some observers have questioned the chain of events leading up to Tuesday’s stunning announcement on national radio and television.
Ayo Sogunro, a Nigerian lawyer and fellow at the South Africa-based Center for Human Rights, said under Chadian law, the term of an incumbent president who dies is completed not by family members but by the National Assembly.
“The army seizing power and conferring it on the son of the president … is a coup and unconstitutional,” Sogunro tweeted Tuesday, calling for the African Union to condemn the transfer of power.
Deby’s 37-year-old son, Mahamat, is best known as a top commander of the Chadian forces aiding a U.N. peacekeeping mission in northern Mali. The military said Tuesday he now will head an 18-month transitional council following his father’s death.
The military called for calm, instituting a 6 p.m. curfew and closing the country’s land and air borders as panic kept many inside their homes in the capital, N’Djamena.
“In the face of this worrying situation, the people of Chad must show their commitment to peace, to stability, and to national cohesion,” General Azem Bermandoa Agouma said.
The circumstances of Deby’s death could not immediately be independently confirmed due to the remote location of the fighting.
The government has released few details of its efforts to put down the rebellion in northern Chad, though it did announce Saturday that it had “totally decimated” one rebel column of fighters.
The rebel group, known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, later put out a statement saying fierce battles had erupted Sunday and Monday. It released a list of five high-ranking military officials who it said were killed, and 10 others it said were wounded, including Chad’s president.
The army only said Tuesday that Deby had fought heroically but was wounded in a battle. He was then taken to the capital where he died of unspecified wounds.
Some residents of the capital, though, said they feared there was more to the story of Deby’s demise.
“The rumors that are going around about the transitional council give me the impression that some information is false,” Thierry Djikoloum said. “They are already talking about dissolving parliament … So for me, I’d say it was a coup d’état. He was killed.”
Some foreign observers also questioned how a head of state could have been killed, saying it cast doubt on his protective guard. The Chadian military has only acknowledged five deaths in weekend fighting in which it said it killed 300 rebels.
“We still don’t have the whole story,” Laith Alkhouri, a global intelligence adviser, told The Associated Press. “It raises concerns regarding the security forces’ assessment of the clashes and their intelligence regarding the severity of the situation.”
Other analysts pointed to Deby’s long history of visiting the battlefield as a former army commander-in-chief himself.
“There’s no evidence to suggest this was a coup committed by his troops. Anyone who follows Deby knows he used to say ‘to lead troops you have to smell the gunpowder,’” tweeted Cameron Hudson with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
Deby 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.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly expressed her condolences to the Chadian people, in a news conference with her German counterpart in Paris.
“What’s central to us now is that a process of democratic transition can be implemented and the stability of Chad preserved,” she said.
“For the rest, she added, French authorities need “a bit more time” to analyze the situation.
Meanwhile, foreign leaders Tuesday paid homage to the slain Chad’s President Deby Itno, a leader described as key Western ally in the fight against jihadists in the Sahel region.
In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari expressed sadness over “the sudden and tragic death of Deby.
Reacting to the incident Tuesday, President Buhari said: “I’m deeply shocked and devastated by the sudden death of Idriss Deby on the battle front to defend the sovereignty of his country.
“The late Deby had played a very active role in our regional joint collaboration in the military campaign against the Boko Haram terrorists.”
The president described the late Chadian leader “as a friend of Nigeria who had enthusiastically lent his hand in our efforts to defeat the murderous Boko Haram terrorists that have posed grave security challenges not only for Nigeria, but also our African neighbours, particularly Chad, Cameroon and Niger Republic.”
He said the death of Deby would create a big vacuum in the efforts to jointly confront the Boko Haram terrorists and the Islamic State West Africa Province.
While condoling with the people of Chad and their new leader, the president called for greater collaboration to defeat the terrorists.
France, Israel, Mali
“Chad is losing a great soldier and a president who has worked tirelessly for the security of the country and the stability of the region for three decades,” the office of French President Emmanuel Macron said in statement, hailing Deby as a “courageous friend” of France, Chad’s former colonial ruler.
The statement also emphasised France’s insistence on the “stability and territorial integrity” of Chad as it faces a push by rebel forces toward its capital, N’Djamena.
After a new transitional military council led by one of Deby’s sons pledged to hold elections in 18 months, French Foreign Minister Le Drian warned that the delay should be “limited.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conveyed his condolences on Twitter, praising Deby’s “bold leadership and… his historic decision to renew Chad’s relationship with Israel.”
In neighbouring Mali, also in the throes of a transitional military rule, interim President Bah Ndaw voiced “deep sadness” over the news of Deby’s “brutal death”.
He called it a “heavy loss” not only for Chad but for the Sahel region and beyond in Africa, where the two countries have been allies against the bourgeoning jihadist threat.
…Additional reports from BBC/AFP