Mercenaries Hold Firm Despite Growing Pressure for Their Ouster
MORONI, Comoro Islands (AP) _ The people on this volcanic archipelago of perfume flowers and poverty are struggling to oust European mercenaries who have dominated the nation during 14 bizarre years of independence.
The long-simmering opposition to the 30 French and Belgian mercenaries boiled over after President Ahmed Abdallah Abderrahmane was assassinated Nov. 26.
Virtually all Comorans blame the mercenary-led Presidential Guard, the main security force on the nation of four islands in the Indian Ocean.
A protest Saturday in Moroni, the capital, was the second in three days broken up with tear gas by the 600-strong guard, headed by Frenchman Bob Denard, a legendary soldier of fortune and veteran of countless battles throughout Africa and Asia. ″The people will not be satisfied until the mercenaries leave,″ said a businessman who asked to be identified only as Abdou. ″The Comorans want to choose their own leader.″
Interim President Said Mohamed Djohar, in a radio announcement Friday, told people not to hold public gatherings.
According to a source in contact with Djohar, the president feels he is hostage to the guard. All his public statements must be cleared by the mercenaries, said the source, who requested anonymity.
The island nation’s 450,000 citizens are mostly illiterate, exceedingly poor and politically unorganized, and they likely will find it difficult to oust the mercenaries by themselves.
The French and South Africans, the two largest aid donors to the islands, suspended all assistance last week and are pressuring Denard and his colleagues to leave.
France has sent troops to its Indian Ocean island of Reunion, but says it is preparing for possible evacuation of French citizens from the Comoros, not military intervention.
The French and the South Africans have done the most to entrench Denard’s mercenaries through the strange history of the Comoros.
The islands declared their independence from France in 1975 and Abdallah became president. Within a month, Denard helped engineer a coup that put Ali Soilih in power.
One of Soilih’s first acts was to publicly burn all colonial bureaucratic records. He fired the 3,000-member civil service and replaced it with illiterate teen-agers. He also tried to ban Moslem practices in a nation where mosques are the most prominent structures in villages of simple grass huts.
Soilih once dreamed he would be attacked by a man with a dog, and his teen- age civil servants tried to carry out his order to kill every dog on the islands.
In 1978, Comoran exiles and the French gave their blessing to another coup by Denard, who took a boatload of 50 mercenaries and his pet German shepherd and captured the country in a few hours while Soilih slept.
Abdallah was restored to power and Soilih was shot dead two weeks later, purportedly while trying to escape.
Denard, now 60, initially was greeted as a liberator hero and decided to remain. He has become a citizen, converted to Islam and married his sixth wife, a Comoran less than half his age.
Denard and other mercenaries have become extremely wealthy and have extensive business interests. For example, the U.S. Embassy building is owned by former mercenary Roger Ghys.
Denard began developing ties with South Africa in the early 1980s.
South Africa has given the Comoros about $5 million in annual aid and about half went to the Presidential Guard, sources said.
Shortly before Abdallah’s death, South Africa told the Comoros it was ceasing aid for the guard, and Denard and Abdallah argued over funding to the force, according to sources.
Denard has said he was not involved in Abdallah’s death and has no plans to leave. Last week, he arrived at Moroni’s main mosque and sought to swear his innocence before senior religious leaders.
They refused to enter with Denard. More than 1,000 men in the square chanted, ″Assassin 3/8 Assassin 3/8″ when he emerged afterward.
No one has been arrested in Abdallah’s assassination, and the government has said only that ″uncontrolled elements″ were responsible.
The 500-man army has been disbanded and the military-style guard patrols the increasingly empty streets in jeeps mounted with machine guns.
The Comoros’ anemic economy is dependent on foreign aid and certain to suffer without it.
The nation has virtually no manufacturing and is known primarily for their ylang-ylang, a greenish-yellow flower exported for use in French perfumes.
″We want the French to help force the mercenaries out,″ said an opposition figure who requested anonymity. ″The mercenaries came from there and that’s where they should go back.″