N’DJAMENA: French President Emmanuel Macron pays his respects in front of the coffin of late Chadian president Idriss Deby during his state funeral in N’Djamena, Chad, Friday. – AFP

N’DJAMENA, Chad: Chad on Friday staged a state funeral for veteran ruler Idriss Deby Itno, a linchpin in the fight against the Sahel’s jihadist insurgency, as France and regional allies voiced backing for his son and successor, Mahamat Idriss Deby. The elder Deby, who had ruled the vast semi-desert state with an iron fist for 30 years, died from wounds sustained fighting rebels at the weekend, the army said Tuesday. His death has stunned the Sahel and its ally and former colonial ruler France, battling a jihadist revolt that in nine years has swept across three countries.

The unrest has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Deby’s coffin, draped in the national flag and surrounded by elite troops, was driven to the Place de la Nation square in the capital N’Djamena for ceremonies attended by foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron. A 21-gun salute sounded out for Deby, who only last August had been declared a field marshal-the first in Chad’s history-after leading an offensive against jihadists in the west of the country. Macron, in his tribute to the fallen president, said “you lived as a soldier, you died as a soldier, weapons in your hands”.

“France will never let anyone, either today or tomorrow, challenge Chad’s stability and integrity,” Macron pledged. But Macron also called on the newly-appointed military government to foster “stability, inclusion, dialogue, democratic transition”. A similar message was conveyed personally to Deby’s son when he met earlier with Macron and the presidents of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, a French presidential aide said.

The African Union meanwhile called on Chad’s security forces “to respect the constitutional mandate and order, and to expeditiously embark on a process of restoration of constitutional order and handing over of political power to the civilian authorities.” The body’s Peace and Security Council also called for “an all-inclusive national dialogue” and expressed “grave concern” over said the establishment of a military council. The younger Deby, a 37-year-old four-star general commanding the elite Republican Guard, was named president and head of a military council immediately after his father’s death was announced. Parliament and the government were dissolved.

He will wield full powers but has promised “free and democratic” elections after an 18-month transition period that can be extended once. The move has been branded an “institutional coup” by the opposition. The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), underscoring the “terrible repression” under Deby, on Friday urged the swiftest possible return to civilian rule.

Deby’s death was announced the day after he was declared the winner of an April 11 election-giving him a sixth mandate after three decades at the helm. The army said the 68-year-old had died on Monday from wounds suffered while leading troops in battle against rebels who had crossed from Libya. The Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) has vowed to pursue its offensive after a pause for the funeral, with spokesman Kingabe Ogouzeimi de Tapol telling AFP that the rebels were “en route to N’Djamena”.

Unstable country
Deby seized power in a chronically unstable country in 1990 and had twice thwarted attempted coups with support from France. He was repeatedly returned to office in elections condemned by opponents as fraudulent. But he gained a reputation in the West as an unfailing ally in the fight to roll back jihadists, whose campaign has shaken the vast, impoverished Sahel. Chad has well-respected armed forces and hosts the headquarters of France’s 5,100-strong Barkhane anti-jihadist mission.

It also partners Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in a regional anti-jihad coalition called the G5 Sahel. The group may name Burkina’s president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, as interim leader to succeed Deby, who had been its chairman under a rotational arrangement, a source at the G5 Sahel secretariat in Noukachott said.

French armored escort
Macron, who left for France mid-afternoon, was the only Western head of state to attend the ceremony. French armored vehicles escorted Macron to the embassy after his arrival at the military base used for Barkhane’s headquarters, an AFP journalist saw. The funeral was followed by prayers at the capital’s Grand Mosque. Deby’s remains were then flown a thousand kilometers (600 miles) east to the village of Amdjarass near the Sudanese border, where he was to be buried alongside his father, close to his birthplace of Berdoba. – AFP