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Chad poses new threat to Swiss-Libyan ties

Gaddafi (right) meets Chad's president Deby in Tripoli on August 8, 2009 AFP

Tensions between Switzerland and Libya over two Swiss businessmen detained in Tripoli have been further fuelled by Swiss efforts to restore peace in Chad.

Diplomats in Bern have been trying for months to promote peace in the central African country, much to the irritation of Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi, who is against any interference in a region he considers his domain.

Several opponents of Chad President Idriss Deby met in Geneva last week at the invitation of Switzerland. One of them agreed to speak to on condition of anonymity.

“We are willing to speak to the Swiss. But we have not yet given our opinion on the possibility of opening negotiations with the regime in N’Djamena. If we fight with guns in our hands, it’s because what is at stake is really important!” explained the rebel, who currently lives in Europe.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey launched a bold initiative to silence the Kalashnikovs before the legislative election of 2010 and the presidential elections of 2011.

The armed opposition, approaching from the Sudan-Chad border, reached the capital at the beginning of 2008. It had managed to encircle the presidential palace before the French army came to the aid of President Deby.

French intervention?

“France always claimed that its army did not intervene in the fighting. That’s not true. It shot at us. And at least two French soldiers were killed in the clashes,” insisted the Chad opposition member.

The rebel was invited to Switzerland by the government. This contact in Geneva is said to have been preceded by two other meetings in May and July in the western Swiss city. asked the Swiss foreign ministry for confirmation of these meetings but was told by spokeswoman Nadine Olivieri Lozano that the ministry “would not comment on the issue”.

The ministry did say that “Switzerland examined the possibilities of a peace policy for Chad and adopted the principle in the framework of a strategy for its commitment in central and western Africa (2009-2011)”.

Bern is also active on behalf of Sudan, the Central African Republic and Cameroon “to try to contribute to strengthen the key actors in the peace process”.

But Colonel Gaddafi, the current president of the African Unity, considers Chad his domain.

Pressure on Switzerland

It’s important to remember the violence in the 1980s between the forces of Hissène Habré, supported by Paris, and those of Goukouni Oueddei, backed by Tripoli. If he is no match militarily for the French presence, the Libyan leader can certainly put pressure on a small country like Switzerland.

The Chad opposition is often more hostile to Gaddafi than to Deby. “It’s obvious that the Libyans didn’t appreciate the fact that we were in Geneva,” the rebel said.

“They also don’t appreciate that Europeans come and poke their noses in this region of Africa, and they are offended that Bern takes initiatives without being consulted.”

It appears the peace policy move for Chad did not come at the best moment, particularly when the government has desperately been trying to help two Swiss detained in Libya since July 2008 get out of the country.

Their detention was an act of retaliation by the Libyan regime for the arrest in Geneva of Hannibal Gadaffi, a son of the Libyan leader, on suspicion of having assaulted two of his domestic staff.

As to the question whether this mission to Chad was not a further source of conflict between Bern and Tripoli, the Swiss foreign ministry said it had “no comment on this issue”. Contacted by mail on Friday, Charles Poncet, Libya’s lawyer, then in Tripoli, did not respond.

Particularly dangerous

The task which Bern has taken on is particularly dangerous. It must be noted that at the end of June, Deby received the main opponents of Colonel Gadaffi in N’Djamena.

At the same time, Gadaffi received the main opponents of Deby. After this demonstration of force, the two heads of state apparently found some common ground.

At the end of July, the opponents of Gadaffi calmed down and officially said they would not resort to violence. And some moderate Chad opponents said they would enter Deby’s government.

Ian Hamel, (Translated from French by Robert Brookes)

July 15, 2008: The arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife, Aline, in Geneva. The couple were charged but released on July 17.

July 19, 2008: Two Swiss are arrested in Libya on suspicion of having violated immigration laws.

April 9, 2009: Libya makes a civil complaint against Genevan judicial authorities.

May 29, 2009: It emerges that Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has spent three days in Tripoli on a secret visit.

August 20, 2009: Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz goes to Tripoli and presents Switzerland’s apology. But the two Swiss are not released.

There are two kinds of opposition in Chad. There is an opposition which is recognised or “legal”. It is made up of about 50 political parties, although some have only a few supporters.

The Coordination of Political Parties for the Defense of the Constitution is at present negotiating with the authorities. These parties, made up of intellectuals, represent only a minority of the electorate.

The armed opposition, however, is capable of overthrowing the 57-year-old Deby, who himself came to power by force in 1990.

The main armed opposition organisation is the Union of Forces of the Resistance, which controls huge desert areas near the border between Chad and Sudan. In the event of danger, it can retreat to Darfur where the same ethnic groups live.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR