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Violence eases on troubled Comoros island

© AFP | The government sent in reinforcements to quell the unrest, which follows months of tension over Assoumani's attempts to extend term limits through planned constitutional changes that could see him rule for 11 more years

MUTSAMUDU (COMOROS) (AFP) - 

Violence on the troubled Comoran island of Anjouan subsided on Friday after four days of deadly clashes between government forces and rebels opposed to President Azali Assoumani.

The government sent in reinforcements to quell the unrest, which follows months of tension over Assoumani's attempts to extend term limits through planned constitutional changes that could see him rule for 11 more years.

Assoumani won a referendum in July allowing him to scrap the rotation of the presidency between Comoros' three main islands after one term, disadvantaging opposition-leaning Anjouan which was next in line.

Anjouan's main city Mutsamudu, which was at the centre of the clashes, began to return to normal on Friday with water supplies that had been abruptly cut during the violence, flowing again.

Soldiers manned checkpoints and watched the trickle of residents who ventured out for Friday prayers on the majority-Muslim island.

"(Assoumani) has done nothing in his three years in power, no jobs for young people, nothing. If they don't want to understand our challenges then we will turn against them. It was us who voted for them after all," said a middle-aged man who carried a can of water as he made his way along a dusty street in Mutsamudu.

The old medina quarter in the city, with its narrow, intersecting alleyways, was the epicentre of the fighting. Security forces surrounded the rebel stronghold and many civilians fled the area.

One source told AFP by phone that troops only permitted women and children under 14 to leave the medina. Another resident said they feared reprisals by security forces if they returned to their home in the flashpoint district.

At the height of the clashes which featured automatic gunfire, witnesses described water and power cuts in the medina and some surrounding areas.

"How can you deny people water for three days? What did they do to deserve such punishment?" said a teacher from the island, now working on the nearby French island of Mayotte.

She added that she was sure it was the political situation that "forced people to take up arms".

- 'Want the rebels to win' -

Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou said on Wednesday that the situation was back to normal in Anjouan after three people were killed in the violence. Witnesses claimed that many more people had been injured in the clashes.

"We want the rebels to win. People who have stolen millions are free while someone who steals a banana to survive gets months in prison," said a young man who was socialising with a group in the city's southern Shell district.

"If they want peace, they must give us jobs."

Another member of the group claimed to have been a victim of government security forces.

"In 2006 I was tortured, my arm still hurts. I received treatment in Mayotte for nine months," said Damir Mohamed Azihar.

The poor, coup-prone Comoros islands -- Anjouan, Grande Comore and Moheli -- are located between Mozambique and Madagascar. The fourth island, Mayotte, remains French.

Assoumani's government accuses the opposition Juwa party of former Anjouan leader and island native Abdallah Sambi of being behind the unrest.

The crisis was sparked on Monday when unidentified gangs erected barricades on the island, which were then cleared by heavily-armed troops.

As well as the human toll, the unrest hit businesses hard.

The manager of an upmarket hotel told AFP they were forced to send their 48 staff home for the duration of the violence.

"The situation is serious, it's a disaster. Commerce ceased, money stopped flowing and families are worried," said the manager.

Talks between the Juwa party and the national government are understood to be ongoing.

The United Nations and African Union have called for stalled talks between rival parties to resume.

© 2018 AFP