In 1986, French Troops in Chad Faced Mysterious Attackers

Who were the ghosts of Moussoro?

In 1986, French Troops in Chad Faced Mysterious Attackers In 1986, French Troops in Chad Faced Mysterious Attackers
On its arrival in Chad as part of Operation Épervier, France’s intervention in the Chad-Libya war, the French military set up a radar center... In 1986, French Troops in Chad Faced Mysterious Attackers

On its arrival in Chad as part of Operation Épervier, France’s intervention in the Chad-Libya war, the French military set up a radar center in the town of Moussoro, north of the capital N’Djamena starting in mid-February 1986.

The radar would become the apparent target of a mysterious raiding force … and the object of a determined French defense.

The 120-mile range SNERI Centaure radar was operated by the air force and protected by infantry from the 2e REI marine infantry regiment plus a Stinger surface-to-air missile team from the 1e REI.

“Four or five days after my arrival, our protection was taken over by the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Foreign Legion,” recalls Sgt. Thierry Bourdil, who arrived there on May 10, 1986.

“We were all very busy because of constant flights by C.160s, which were delivering all the arms for the 2e REI. We had to guide them in order to ascertain a safe landing and a quick turn-around and take-off. Almost all aircraft of the six planned had landed, the last being down in Bangui. It contained all the weapons of the 2e REI!”

A few days later, while the sixth C.160 was still broken down in Bangui, the radar controller called in Bourdil and another colleague. For several hours he had noticed very slow plots northeast of Moussoro converging on the same place.

A French radar in N’Djamena. Albert Grandolini collection

The Centaur radar was theoretically capable of detecting vehicles, but nonetheless the operator remained perplexed. The signals grew stronger. And new signals appeared  from the direction of Niger to the northwest. There were 80 targets, in all.

By overlaying the radar video on a wall map, the radar crew saw a clear correlation. The radar tracks were converging on a town called Salal, around 60 miles away. Apparently Salal was the staging point for an attack on the radar.

“The priority for both our officers was thus quickly carried out — a plan to protect the site with the means at hand,” Bourdil says. The French troops dug foxholes, strung barbed wire, laid mines and prepared air-defense guns — including a cannon-armed Gepard air-defense vehicle — for ground-to-ground action.

French headquarters at N’Djamena couldn’t provide any support, because at the time French aircraft did not have the ability to safely fly at night. The radar team was on its own. By midnight all 150 French defenders were in their vehicles and foxholes, ready to fight. “We had noted 80 vehicles loaded with six people [each] and therefore expected a force of over 500 people,” Bourdil says.

Around 1:00 A.M., one of the controllers opened the door of the radar shelter and announced the column of vehicles was leaving the assembly point and heading toward Moussoro. Ninety minutes later, headlights appeared in the distance.

Moussoro as seen by a Mirage F.1CR. Thierry Bourdil collection

The apparent attackers split into two groups. One headed into the town. The other bore down on the radar center. But instead of attacking, the vehicles swept right past and headed west. The French troops watched dumbfounded as the would-be assailants trundled off toward N’Djamena. The Gepard gave chase.

At 3:30 A.M., the defenders climbed out of their foxholes and lit cigarettes. At 4:00 A.M., the Gepard crew returned with a roll of toilet paper on which they had written license-plate numbers, the makes of the vehicles and a count of their occupants. In their hurry, the Gepard operators had forgotten to take normal paper with them.

As the sun began to illuminate the horizon, a noise tore the sky above the camp. A Mirage F1CR reconnaissance fighter flew overhead. Moments later, a Breguet Atlantic spy called in via radio. The Atlantic crew searched around the village of Salal … and found nothing. “There was no sign on the tracks,” Bourdil explains. “As if we had seen ghosts.”

By late morning, a C.160 flew senior officers to the radar center for a debriefing. A week later, the radar team got a new defense plan. The last C.160 finally arrived from Bangui carrying the marines’ remaining weapons.

“We never knew what happened to the vehicles because they never arrived in N’Djamena,” Bourdil concludes. “Friends or dissidents? This question remains and will remain forever unanswered.”

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