Comoros Leader Taken Prisoner in Coup
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ The president of the Comoros Islands was taken prisoner today in a coup led by foreign mercenaries in the impoverished nation off Africa’s east coast.
Communications with the islands were spotty, but automatic weapons fire and mortar fire were reported around the presidential palace in Moroni, the capital, and several civilians were reported killed.
The three islands of the Comoros, located between Madagascar and Mozambique, have been politically unstable since gaining independence in 1975. The United Nations lists the Comoros, with 500,000 residents, as one of the world’s poorest countries.
The mercenaries were led by Bob Denard, a Frenchman who led a successful coup in the Comoros in 1978 and ruled the islands behind the scenes until France sent soldiers to topple him in 1989. It was unclear whether Comorian government soldiers took part in today’s coup.
Denard’s forces were holding President Said Mohamed Djohar at an army barracks in Moroni, said Abdoullwahab Kamal, charge d’affaires at the Comoros Embassy in Paris. He said the mercenaries freed all the inmates at the prison in Moroni, including prisoners who had been sentenced for taking part in a failed 1992 coup led by people close to Denard.
In Geneva, Aboubakar Abdou M’Sa, secretary general to the Comoros federal assembly, said he had not been able to get any information because all the telephones seem busy.
``We have heard there have been exchanges of fire,″ he said. ``We have heard of civilian deaths of two, of four. The situation is very confused.″
The Moroni airport was reported closed. A plane attempting to pick up a group of South African tourists reported being unable to land in the islands this morning, said Bruce Hutchison, the managing director of World Leisure Holidays, based in South Africa.
His agency had booked 104 South Africans at a resort about an hour’s drive from the Comorian capital. The islands attract more than 17,000 tourists a year, mostly from France, who come for the beaches, underwater fishing and mountain scenery.
The Comorian interior minister, Said Ali Mohammed Allaoui, asked France to intervene militarily to put down the coup.
``A political or diplomatic condemnation is not enough,″ he said at a news conference at the embassy in Paris.
France did not immediately respond to the request for help. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement ``firmly condemning″ the coup attempt.
Allaoui, in Paris on a private visit, told a news conference that a contingent of three French officers guarding Djohar had ``failed in its mission,″ and that the president’s wife recognized Denard when he took the couple prisoner. She was later released, he said.
Denard had fled to South Africa after the French ousted him, and remained there until February 1993, when he voluntarily returned to France to try to clear his name. He was convicted in Paris of criminal association for his mercenary work and given a five-year suspended sentence.
Djohar, the former head of the supreme court, was elected president in March 1990. His government has been the target of protests both at home and in Paris, organized by dissidents who depict Djohar as a corrupt dictator.
He announced in August 1990 that he had foiled a coup attempt led by French mercenary Max Veillard, whom the government claimed to have shot and killed two months later. Djohar thwarted an attempt by the supreme court in 1991 to impeach him.
In September 1992, rebels the president said were tied to foreign mercenaries took over the radio station in Moroni. The coup attempt was quashed without bloodshed. Months later, rebel soldiers tried to free jailed comrades and up to six were killed.