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Risk of civil war hangs over one-sided Chad poll

Written by: Staff

N'DJAMENA, Apr 30 (Reuters) Chad's President Idriss Deby is leading his country to a one-sided election on Wednesday that will return him to power for five more years but could trigger a civil war in the landlocked central African state.

The president, a former army chief who seized control in a 1990 revolt, presents himself as a guarantor of unity and stability in the former French colony twice the size of France which has been plagued by ethnic feuding and conflict since independence in 1960.

He portrays his government, which receives aid and investment from France, the United States and Taiwan, as a strategic bulwark resisting the spread of Arab fundamentalism in sub-Saharan Africa, a threat he says is posed by neighbour Sudan, where China is the major backer.

''Idriss Deby -- architect of peace and democracy'' reads one of the campaign posters put up by his ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) party along with blue and yellow party flags around the dusty and dilapidated capital N'Djamena.

Rebels fighting to oust Deby, who raced from the east in pickup trucks to strike at N'Djamena earlier this month, say they will try to disrupt the May 3 polls and have announced a plan to coordinate fresh attacks.

''We'll do everything in our power to stop this vote,'' said Timan Erdimi, a nephew of Deby and former close aide who leads a newly formed rebel group, the Rally of Democratic Forces (RAFD).

Another damper on the presidential election, Chad's third in a decade, is a boycott by the main opposition parties which condemn the vote as a farce aimed at keeping Deby in power.

His four challengers comprise two members of his own government and two candidates from allied parties. This, critics say, makes Wednesday's vote a foregone conclusion.

Analysts fear Deby's rejection of calls to postpone the polls and refusal to negotiate with the rebels will drag Africa's fifth-largest country and its more than 10 million people into another debilitating conflict.

''The election will be the beginning, not the end of Chad's troubles,'' Suliman Baldo, Africa Program Director of the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

''If it goes ahead, it could lead Chad to civil war.'' MORE REUTERS CH PC1603

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