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French push for Chad solution gets stuck in the diplomatic sand

While the battlefield is now quiet in comparison with Beirut, the Chad conflict appears just as deadlocked. Not long ago, both Chadian and French officials here were optimistic for a settlement that would have created a government of national reconciliation while French and Libyan troops withdrew simultaneously.

But top French officials told The Christian Science Monitor that Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson's recent swing through Libya, Chad, and Ethiopia brought only bad news.

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On one side, the officials say Chadian President Hissene Habre continues to push the French to take the Libyans on militarily. The French refuse, calling on him to negotiate.

On the other side, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi demands that President Habre be replaced and refuses to remove his troops from northern Chad.

The only concession he was prepared to offer to the French foreign minister was that Mr. Habre not be replaced by his client, rebel leader Goukhouni Woddei, but by ''a third man.''

The French have rejected this ''third man'' idea.

''The Libyans should not be able to form the Chadian government,'' a top Foreign Ministry official said. ''We also cannot let them change the frontiers because if we do, all the colonial borders in Africa will be disallowed.''

So what to do next? The French admit they don't know.

They say they must continue to support Mr. Habre's recognized government, even though they blame him for much of the present difficulty.

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In January, President Habre refused to attend a peace conference in Addis Ababa, claiming that the reception accorded his rival, rebel leader Woddei, was too official to allow any talks to begin.

At the same time, the French mistrust Libyan leader Qaddafi. They are scared of his efforts to promote Libya's revolution throughout Africa and say they have to stop him in Chad.

Meanwhile, the possibility of a full-scale conflict grows.

After a raid by Woddei's rebel forces on a Habre outpost two weeks ago, French troops moved north 60 miles toward Libyan and rebel positions.

And after losing one Jaguar jet to antiaircraft cannon, the French have reinforced their air contingent considerably.

Although the battlefield has been calm for the past few weeks, the French fear a prolonged stalemate could lead to frustration and a resumption of the violence, similiar to last year's fighting.

To head this off, they still would like to bring Woddei and Habre together.

But they are clearly not hopeful.

''It's a terrible situation,'' an official said. ''Chad is a destabilizing factor in the world. It could drag out for a long, long time.''

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