N‘DJAMENA, April 18 (Reuters) - Chad’s former head of state, Goukouni Weddeye, has offered to meet eastern rebels fighting President Idriss Deby to try to persuade them to begin peace talks, the Chadian presidency said on Wednesday.
Goukouni, who ruled the landlocked central African country from 1979 to 1982, when he was deposed by Deby’s predecessor Hissene Habre, met the Chadian president in Gabon on Tuesday in an encounter arranged by Gabonese President Omar Bongo.
In comments quoted by Chadian state media on Wednesday, Goukouni said he would seek to persuade Chadian rebels who are fighting a hit-and-run war in the east to start peace talks.
"I’ll commit myself to go to these Chadians who have taken up arms to propose the idea that they talk with Deby," the former Chadian ruler said in the Gabonese capital Libreville.
"Those who accept will be heard. Those who refuse, we’ll know who they are," he added.
For more than a year, eastern Chad has been swept by repeated attacks by the rebels and by Sudanese Arab militia raiders striking across the border from Sudan’s Darfur region, where conflict has killed more than 200,000 people since 2003.
The raids have triggered tit-for-tat revenge attacks between Chadian Arab and non-Arab tribes, creating a cycle of violence that has killed hundreds of civilians in recent months.
Deby, a former army chief who himself seized power in an eastern revolt which toppled Habre in 1990, was re-elected in a presidential vote last year that the main opposition parties boycotted. His rebel foes accuse him of ruling like a dictator.
While keeping up a military offensive against the eastern insurgents, he has also tried to coax them into laying down their arms. In December, he signed a peace deal with one rebel chief, Mahamat Nour Abdelkerim, and made him defence minister.
Goukouni said he would seek to contact two other rebel leaders still opposing Deby -- Mahamat Nouri of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) and Timane Erdimi of the Rally of Democratic Forces (RAFD).
Welcoming Goukouni’s support for peace efforts, Deby said in Libreville: "Chad has suffered too much from useless wars".
Goukouni, who since being deposed has lived mostly in exile in Libya and Algeria, was expected to return to Chad with his supporters.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended deploying a strong U.N. military peacekeeping force in eastern Chad to try to halt the unrelenting violence, but Deby’s government has said it would prefer a smaller police force. (Additional reporting by Antoine Lawson in Libreville)