Comoros Coup Leader Says He’ll Surrender
MORONI, Comoros Islands (AP) _ Having failed to head off a showdown with French special troops, the soldier of fortune who sought to wrest power in the Comoros Islands for a third time said today he would give up.
Following a morning of battles that left at least three people dead and several wounded, Bob Denard said he would ``negotiate the conditions of surrender″ with the French, who have superior firepower and training to his two dozen mercenaries backed by Comorian soldiers.
``There’s no question of disarming my men, or they’ll be dead tomorrow,″ the 66-year-old, silver-haired French mercenary told reporters. ``It’s not over. It’s only beginning. But I don’t want to have a bloodbath on my conscience. We will negotiate.″
Camouflage-clad troops of the French Special Operation Command, some wearing black face paint, swarmed ashore before first light today and seized two airports: the main one north of Moroni and an abandoned one near the central harbor.
France, the former colonial power in the islands, said it sent an unspecified number of troops at the request of Comorian Prime Minister Mohammed Caabi el-Yachroutu, who along with the head of the Comorian armed forces had taken refuge in the French Embassy when the coup began Thursday.
``The operation’s objective is to end the aggression by the mercenaries,″ the French Foreign Ministry said in Paris.
About 40 French commandos who landed on inflatable speedboats had faced off with 30 Comorian soldiers and at least four mercenaries at 2 a.m., said Capt. Robert Pellegrin, who commanded the assault.
Several Puma helicopters buzzed in close over rooftops. Gunfire resonated throughout the city, and three French warships could be seen offshore.
Shots also were heard near Hahaya International Airport and the Kandani military barracks, 3 1/2 miles north of Moroni, where Denard’s men have held President Said Mohamed Djohar since Thursday.
Reporters saw two Comorian soldiers, shot to death by the French soldiers, lying in the street. One sprawled out of a car with its lights still on.
Several people were injured, including French reporter Christophe Gautier of VSD magazine and French photographer Patrick Durant of the Sygma agency.
French forces took 29 prisoners, including two French mercenaries, Pellegrin said.
Coup leaders had hoped to turn over control to a civilian leadership and avoid a fight with France. But an alliance of political leaders expected to assume control of the Comoros Islands collapsed Tuesday because of disagreement over what role Denard and other mercenaries would play.
One of three designated transition leaders, Omar Tamou, insisted Denard and the other mercenaries should get out and let Comorians decide their future.
``The people don’t want Denard to stay here.″ Tamou said. ``I support having an election as soon as possible.″
But the two men named as co-presidents _ Said Ali Kemal and Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim _ said the mercenaries should stay at least through elections planned for January or February.
``The use of guns to protect democracy is good,″ Abdoulkarim said Tuesday.
State radio broadcast messages by Comorian military leaders involved in the coup urged residents to fight the French. But on the streets, people shouted for Denard and the mercenaries to get out.
Denard, a Frenchman who has twice staged takeovers on this archipelago off east Africa, spoke to reporters at the military headquarters he continued to hold on a hill between downtown Moroni and the main airport.
He said he had financed the latest Comorian coup himself, spending $2 million.
He said his terms of surrender would include protection for Djohar, the president he has detained since Thursday.
As to his own fate, ``I think it would be Le Sante,″ Denard said, referring to one of France’s main prisons.
The Comoros, with about 500,000 residents, has a history of political instability since gaining independence in 1975.
In the 1978 coup, Denard placed Ahmed Abdallah Abderrahmane in the presidency and commanded the presidential guard. He was ousted by the French shortly after Abdallah’s 1989 assassination, in which Denard was suspected.
Denard had been living quietly in France since 1993, when he was given a five-year suspended sentence for trying to overthrow the Marxist government of Benin in 1977. He remains under a death sentence in Benin.
Since 1961, Denard has led uprisings in the Belgian Congo, Nigeria, Angola, Zimbabwe when it was white-ruled Rhodesia, Iran and Yemen.