Chad's Junta and Rebel Groups Open Peace Talks in Qatar

DOHA, Qatar (AP) -- Chad's ruling military council and representatives of rebel forces met for the formal opening of peace talks on Sunday in Qatar, part of a broader diplomatic effort to halt decades of fighting and instability in the vast, faction-ridden nation.

The negotiations at a hotel in Doha aim to pave the way for the head of the junta, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby, to lead the strategic central African country toward new elections in 18 months.

Delegations from a constellation of opposition and armed rebel groups gathered with African, American, European and Qatari officials for a ceremony to mark the start of the talks, followed by negotiations between the Chadian sides behind closed doors.

The rebel groups at the table included the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT, by its French acronym), Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad, the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development and others fiercely opposed to Deby's rule.

Deby assumed control of Chad's transitional council and dissolved Parliament last spring after his father, Idriss Deby, died of wounds sustained while fighting rebels trying to overthrow his government north of the capital. Opposition figures and rebel groups decried Deby's takeover as a violation of the country's rules for presidential succession. Chad's constitution dictates that the National Assembly president should become the interim leader until elections are held.

As part of the delicate 18-month transition period, Deby has promised to launch a national dialogue with rebel groups to move toward stabilizing the country and organizing elections. Sunday's high-level meeting at the Sheraton Hotel's cavernous, red-carpeted ballroom represents a crucial first step in that reconciliation process.

Chad's Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke reiterated his support for a national dialogue "open to all" and vowed that the country's eventual presidential and legislative elections would be "transparent and credible" to "rebuild the state on solid foundations."

He also praised the transitional council's amnesty decree that last fall voided the convictions of hundreds of dissidents and armed rebels and allowed them to return to the country.

Throughout the late Deby's three-decade autocratic rule, his government repeatedly faced threats from rebels seeking to mount incursions into the country's capital. Rebels frequently streamed into the country from Libya, Chad's war-wracked northern neighbor where Chadian fighters have joined one of several foreign mercenary groups in recent years.

"We must join efforts and discard differences in order to overcome the common challenge of the spread of transnational organized crime and to eliminate extremist terrorist groups operating across our shared border," said Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush at the ceremony.

Chad has been considered a strategic country and ally of France, its former colonial power, at the intersection of multiple conflicts for decades. France depends on Chad as a military base for its own troops and as a strategic partner to combat extremist violence in the Sahel region.

The tiny Gulf Arab state of Qatar has played an outsize diplomatic role in various conflicts from Africa to the Mideast in recent years, most significantly as a key go-between Afghanistan's Taliban rulers and American forces whose 20-year war came to a fraught and bitter end last year.

The energy-rich sheikhdom also brokered the resumption of diplomatic relations between long-feuding Kenya and Somalia last year.

"Qatar will do everything in its power to make (the talks) a success as a facilitator and host," said Soltan-al-Muraikhi, Qatar's minister of state for foreign affairs.