N'DJAMENA – N'Chad’s political opposition has urged the military to hand over power to a civilian transitional government following the killing of longtime President Idriss Deby Itno, saying on Thursday that the immediate appointment of the slain leader's son as interim leader amounted to a “coup d'etat.”
As the rebels blamed for Deby's death threatened to overtake the capital, N'Djamena, some residents of the city of 1 million feared violence and began trying to leave. Others remained inside their homes despite authorities' calls for life to resume as normal after the president of three decades was slain.
Some 30 opposition political parties announced they have decided not to recognize the military's transitional council, which was announced Tuesday at the same time as Deby's death.
Many in the international community also called for a democratic transfer of power after Deby's sudden death even as some heads of state prepared to travel to N'Djamena for Friday's funeral despite growing security fears. French President Emmanuel Macron is among the heads of state expected to attend, highlighting the central African country's strategic importance.
On Tuesday, a military spokesman announced that Deby had been fatally wounded while visiting the front lines of the battle against rebels.
"The Chadian people tell us they do not want a dynastic transfer of power," one opposition leader, Succes Masra, said in a video message released online. “The Chadian people do not want to continue with the same institutions that have created the current situation.”
Mahamat Idriss Deby, 37, is only one year older than his father was when his rebel forces overthrew the president back in 1990. Many fear that he will stay on beyond the 18-month transitional period announced by the military this week.
“We say no to this and the military transitional council must hand over power to civilians," said François Djekombe of the Union of Republican Forces opposition party. “The military must respect the constitution of our country and it is up to the president of the national assembly to ensure the interim.”
Mahamat Zen Basda, secretary-general of the ruling MPS party, said the president of the National Assembly had declined the offer to become the country's leader and that the army had been entrusted to form the transitional council to avoid a power vacuum.
A statement attributed to the National Assembly president late Wednesday also said that he had supported the decision to bypass him and instead appoint the military council to lead the transition.
Chad has played a key role in the fight against Islamic extremism in Africa, providing pivotal troops to regional forces battling jihadists in northern Mali, which has been called the most dangerous U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world.
France, which bases its regional counterterrorism operations in Chad, has emphasized the importance of a peaceful transition.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington that “the developments in recent days and hours are a cause for concern.”
“We want to see a peaceful democratic transition of power to a civilian-led government,” he said. "We would be concerned by anything that would stand in the way of that.”
Following Deby's death, French officials described him as a “courageous friend," and a “great soldier."
However, human rights groups say Chad's military contributions to fighting Islamic extremism ultimately helped shield him from international criticism as his government became increasingly autocratic. Despite being an oil-producing nation, Chad remains one of the world's poorest countries.
“For years, international players have propped up Deby’s government for its support for counterterrorism operations in the Sahel and the Lake Chad basin and involvement in other regional initiatives while largely turning a blind eye to his legacy of repression and violations of social and economic rights at home,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement this week.
Earlier this month, Deby was elected to a sixth term after facing minimal opposition because several challengers chose to boycott, fearing the vote would be rigged. In a bit to thwart opposition activists, the internet in Chad was disrupted several times before and during the April 11 voting day.
Authorities now believe the rebels blamed for killing Deby entered Chad that same day from southern Libya.
The rebels now aiming for the capital are led by Mahamat Mahadi Ali, a longtime Deby opponent who formed the shadowy group known by its French acronym, FACT, in 2016 after leaving another rebel group, the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development.
___ Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.