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Chad rivals chat: is peace possible?

Hopes of a peaceful settlement to almost two decades of civil war in Chad have been rekindled, but . . .

That sums up the diplomatic reaction to the recent unexpected meeting between the impoverished central African country's two main rivals: Chad's de facto President, Hissein Habre, and his long-time enemy, southern leader Wadal Abdelkader Kamougue.

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The two got together in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, the weekend before last. But any optimism engendered by their talks has to be tempered by the memory of past agreements that broke down almost before the ink was dry.

''At least they came together in one room and shook hands,'' said a Western diplomat in Libreville who, after several years in Chad, has few illusions about the chances for lasting peace there.

In fact, Mr. Habre, while claiming that the ''negotiations process is engaged'' acknowledged that many problems remain to be resolved. He insisted, however, that he and ''my brother'' Kamougue had negotiated ''seriously'' and, perhaps most important, that ''the next round of talks will be held on Chadian territory.''

That Habre and Kamougue agreed to meet at all appears to be a major step in the long process of national reconciliation.

More than any of the other dozen or so factional leaders who have emerged over the years in Chad's civil war, Habre and Kamougue embody the complex ethnic , regional, and historical enmities that lie at the heart of the conflict.

For the Kamougue-led southerners, who account for some 60 percent of Chad's population of 4 million, Habre has assumed almost demonic proportions, thanks to his efficient, if not brutal, campaign to break the southern domination of post-independence Chadian administrations.

Though Habre is calling for reconciliation, there is little doubt that his armed forces of the north systematically massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of southerners captured in the 1980 battle for N'Djamena.

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Many longtime Chadian observers, however, argued that those executions were provoked by the 1979 slaughter of what Roman Catholic missionaries in the region claimed were several thousands of northern merchants and their families, by Kamougue's southern armed forces of Chad.

Westerners living in Chad at the time said the southern reprisals were a panicky response to Habre's rout of Kamougue from N'Djamena, after which the predominantly Christian southern population feared an imminent invasion and subjugation by the Muslim northern ''combatants.''

The result has been an effective division of the country. Few southerners stray north of N'Djamena. No northerners have settled in provinces below the Chari River, where Kamougue's heavily armed, often ill-disciplined troops rule in almost feudal fashion.

Against such a backdrop of mutual fear and hatred, real national reconciliation - not just between north and south, but also between Habre and at least a handful of ethnically opposed groups - would appear a difficult and distant goal.

Nevertheless, Habre has taken the first tentative steps in that direction. Aside from the dramatic meeting with Kamougue in Libreville, he purposefully left open the path of negotiations with all rival factions.

''The armed forces of the north have never had as their objective the confiscation of power, even less to impose an implacable dictatorship,'' he said in a speech shortly after his troops had chased former President Goukhouni Woddei from the capital.

Saying that his army preferred ''dialogue to force,'' Habre called on his ''southern brothers to bury the recriminations and unjustified and sterile hatred'' and to join with him in forming ''a technically competent and politically representative government.''

But the form such a government would take, and how representative it would be , remain open questions. Few Western or African analysts doubt that, having taken N'Djamena by force, Habre will insist on a leading role in any coalition.

He has already formed a ''provisional council of state'' with himself as President and his close Army commanders in all important posts. He has promised to dismantle the council once a government of reconciliation is established, but when and how that is to happen remains a mystery.

Before the talks in Libreville, Kamougue had insisted that Habre renounce his claim to power and agree to Organization of African Unity-sponsored national elections. Much the same agreement has been promised - but never fulfilled - twice before in Chad.

Habre has not ruled out such elections. But, given the much greater southern population and the advantage that would give Kamougue, it seems unlikely he will agree to hand over power that easily.

More likely, both Western and African observers say, is a negotiated coalition, with Habre as President, the other major factions amply represented, and the armed forces of the north clearly in control.

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