The chief of the Comoros island of Anjouan fled in a speedboat Wednesday to the French Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte, leaving his capital in the hands of victorious African troops.
Ousted rebel leader Colonel Mohammed Bacar sought asylum on Mayotte one day after a force of Comoran federal troops, backed by a mainly-Tanzanian African Union force, invaded Anjouan in an operation to reunite the archipelago.
"Colonel Mohammed Bacar arrived in Mayotte on Wednesday at 3 pm local time (GMT+12) on board a speedboat. There were about a dozen men with him, some of them armed," a source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Mr. Bacar is in a secure area, along with the men who accompanied him. All of them have asked for political asylum in France, after what happened on Anjouan," the well-placed official told AFP.
France's ministry for overseas territories confirmed that the 45-year-old former naval and police officer had arrived on Mayotte, around 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Anjouan, and had requested political asylum.
Comoran Defence Minister Mohamed Bacar Dossar refused to comment on Bacar's escape, but said the country had issued international arrest warrants for him and his associates accusing them of "rebellion and torture".
"We informed France of this in case he tried to get to Mayotte, but we got no guarantees. The French ambassador told us they'd be embarrassed if he came, but that they'd have to study any asylum application," Dossar said.
Bacar seized power in Anjouan -- one of three islands in the Comoros federation — in 2001 and was confirmed in office by an election in 2002.
In 2007, the French-trained officer staged another election to confirm his re-election, but the vote was rejected as illegal by both the Comoros federal government and the African Union.
He and a force of several hundred armed police nevertheless continued to control the island until Tuesday, when an estimated 1,400 AU and Comoros troops made good their threat to invade and re-establish federal rule.
"The troops are involved in an operation to sweep the area around the presidential palace and secure it," Comoran army spokesman Ahmed Sidi said.
At least 11 civilians were wounded in clashes that broke out after the invasion force disembarked from fishing boats on Tuesday and stormed the Anjouan capital Mutsamudu, hospital sources said.
Both Bacar's personal home and the presidential palace were captured after brief skirmishes, along with the key radio station, and on Wednesday they were under the control of victorious Comoros forces.
Witnesses said Bacar — who faces accusations of war crimes if caught — and his guards had left his residence early on Tuesday and fled into the hills.
The authorities in the federal capital Moroni, on the main island of Grande Comore, wasted no time in finding a replacement to rule Anjouan.
Comoran Vice President Ikililou Dhoinine was already on Anjouan running things at the head of a central government delegation until a transitional government could be put in place, cabinet minister Ali Mmadi said.
"This transitional government will be set up by week's end," government spokesman Abdourahim Said Bakar told AFP, adding that a new cabinet would be announced on Friday.
Mmadi said the transitional government would be headed by Anjouan's appeals court chief, Laili Zamane, and that new elections were slated for May.
The invasion of the coup-prone archipelago was supported by both the former colonial power France — which helped airlift African Union troops to the islands — and the United States.
Tanzanian, Sudanese, and Comoran troops were greeted with cheers from the local population when they landed before dawn on Tuesday and there was only light resistance from Bacar's militiamen.
Since winning independence from France in 1975, the Comoros archipelago — whose name comes from the Arabic for "moon" — has never known constitutional stability and has endured 19 coups or coup attempts.
Anjouan has a scattering of villages and is home to 240,000 people. It is known mainly as the world's leading exporter of ylang-ylang flowers and for its shady offshore banking industry.