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Chadian president Idriss Déby killed after 30 years in power, military announces

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Chad's President Idriss Deby arrives at the G5 Sahel summit in Pau, southwestern France, Monday Jan.13, 2020.
Chad's President Idriss Deby arrives at the G5 Sahel summit in Pau, southwestern France, Monday Jan.13, 2020.   -   Copyright  Regis Duvignau/Pool Photo via AP
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Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, who ruled the central African nation for more than three decades, was killed on Tuesday on the battlefield in a fight against rebels, the country's top military commander announced on national television and radio.

The stunning announcement came just hours after electoral officials had declared Deby the winner of the April 11 presidential election, paving the way for him to stay in power for six more years.

The circumstances of Deby's death could not immediately be independently confirmed due to the remote location. It was not known why the president would have visited the area or participated in ongoing clashes with the rebels who opposed his rule.

The government and national assembly have been dissolved and an 18-month transitional council will be led by Deby's 37-year-old son, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, the military said, also imposing a nightly curfew of 6 p.m and closing the borders.

The French embassy in the country said in a statement following the announcement of Déby's death that "the situation is calm in the capital, but in these exceptional circumstances, it is recommended to limit travel to what is necessary." The French school is to close its doors for the spring holiday early.

"The French embassy presents its condolences to the Chadian people," it added.

Crackdown on opposition

A former military officer, Deby rose to power in a 1990 coup d'état against then-President Hissene Habre, who was later convicted of human rights abuses at an international tribunal in Senegal.

His regime was regularly accused by international NGOs of violating human rights. This was particularly the case in the 1990s, when his Republican Guard and political police were accused of large-scale killings.

His methods had become somewhat less brutal in recent years with opponents allowed some degree of freedom of expression, but his security services were conscientious about not allowing criticism to reach the streets, through targeted arrests and by banning all political gatherings.

Only six of the 16 candidates who applied for the April 11 presidential election were finally in the running against Déby. Political scientists and some of the opposition called them "stooges."

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 112 opposition party members, supporters and civil society activists were arbitrarily detained in the weeks leading to the ballot, with some subjected to severe beatings.

Security forces also raided the home of an opposition candidate, killing his 80-year-old mother. The attack prompted several other candidates to withdraw from the poll.

A powerful army

His 30 years in power were marked by nepotism — he appointed relatives in key positions in the military, government and economy — and consolidation of power with the elimination in 2018 of the prime minister position.

But the military was his greatest asset and helped him survive numerous armed rebellions over the years.

Led by his relatives and mainly staffed by officers from his Zaghawa ethnic group, it is considered one of the best in the region and enabled him to be seen as an essential partner in the fight against jihadism by Western countries, in particular former colonial power France.

The country, landlocked between failed states such as Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic, is a major contributor of soldiers and weapons to the conflict opposing the G5 Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) and jihadist groups.

The Chadian army also provides the UN peacekeepers in Mali with one of their main contingents.

But in recent months, the unity of the Zaghawas has cracked again, and the head of state has had to dismiss some "dubious" officers, according to people close to the Palace.

Already at the end of the 2000s, some prominent Zaghawas had joined the rebel camp, notably Timan Erdimi, Déby's nephew, who in 2008 took the lead of a rebel coalition which failed, at the gates of the presidential palace in N'Djamena, to overthrow the president thanks to the support of the French army.

Another attempt in 2019 was aborted after French warplanes targeted Chadian rebels headed for the capital in a series of strikes.

The latest insurgency is led by a group calling itself the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT).

The rebels are believed to have armed and trained in neighbouring Libya before crossing into northern Chad on April 11.