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France offers to intervene in Comoros, again

Latest update : 2008-02-22

Paris has offered to transport AU troops to the Comoros Islands in its effort to regain control of a rebellious island. It will not be the first offer of help from the troubled island’s former colonial power.


Anjouan, one of the three islands forming the Union of the Comoros, is awaiting the final assault from government forces.


Federal president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi’s government has received backing from the African Union (AU) and France to invade the rebel island and overthrow its leader, Mohamed Bacar.


The government has been moving troops and equipment to Mohéli, the island closest to Anjouan. An AU mission is expected to deliver a formal ultimatum to Bacar in the coming days.


For its part, France has offered logistical support to help AU forces deploy to the Comoros, but will not take part in the invasion.


“We confirm that France is available to provide Tanzanian and Senegalese troops support to transport them to the Comoros, i.e. to Grande-Comore or to Mohéli, but not to Anjouan,” French foreign affairs spokeswoman Pascale Andréani told AFP on Thursday.


Battleground for French military and mercenaries


The operation would be the third French intervention in 18 years in the Indian Ocean nation located off the eastern coast of Africa. And that’s not counting repeated interference by French mercenaries since the Comoros became independent.


Three of the four islands in the archipelago (Anjouan, Mohéli and Grande-Comore, where the current capital Moroni is located) voted for independence in 1975, while Mayotte chose to remain a French overseas territory.


French mercenary Bob Denard then stormed into Comoros’ history. Opponent Ali Soilih hired him and his men to overthrow then president Ahmed Abdallah in 1975. From his exile in France, Abdallah in turn hired Denard to restore him to power three years later. Denard died in France in Oct. 2007.


“Up until the end of the 1980s, the mercenaries propped Abdallah’s regime with France’s, not green light, but amber light,” said Michel Klen, a French former military intelligence officer in Africa and author of the upcoming book, “The Mercenaries’ Odyssey.”


The French military first stepped in in 1991 to oust the mercenaries, then again in 1995 to stop them from staging a fresh coup.


Apart from foreign interference, Klen explains that the Comoros has also always suffered from rivalries between local leaders, earning the country the nickname “archipelago of the quarrelsome sultans”.


For example, Anjouan separatists came out strongly in 1997, asking for their island to be reunited with France. Demonstrators then marched with French flags and portraits of the then president, Jacques Chirac, causing an embarrassment in Paris. “It would be impossible to re-colonise the Comoros,” said Klen.


“We now have four presidents”


These days, Mohamed Bacar’s Anjouan regime is no longer seeking an association with France but challenges the authority of the central Moroni government, which is now endorsed by Paris.


Maalesh, a popular singer who claims to be “Comorian and proud of it”, the population is growing weary of divisions that it does not understand. “The Union never had the authority to control anything in Anjouan,” he said. “We have a constitution that only about 35% of the Comorians voted for, and we now have four presidents.”


He likened the international community’s hesitations in the Comoros to the situation in Kosovo and added: “Comorians on the street think that France is playing divide and rule.”

Date created : 2008-02-22