Bob Denard, Africa’s Notorious But Aging Mercenary, Strikes Again
PARIS (AP) _ At 66, Frenchman Bob Denard was thought to have put the bad old days of African coups and mercenary campaigns behind him. On Thursday, he tried to put one more notch in his hired gun.
In a throwback to his post-colonial heyday, Denard led his second coup in the Comoros Islands, an African archipelago and former French colony that he effectively ruled from 1978 until he was forced out in 1989.
While it was unclear whether the coup was successful, it echoed the era when Denard and his troops hopped from country to country, installing and propping up governments, allegedly with at least tacit support from Paris.
Denard’s forces attacked the presidential palace and captured President Said Mohamed Djohar, according to officials at the Comoros Embassy in Paris. As of late Thursday, the mercenaries controlled the main army compound.
Denard was thought to have retired two years ago when he received a suspended sentence for a botched attempt to overthrow the Marxist government of Benin in 1977. He settled in France with his family.
Among the last of post-colonial French mercenaries, known as ``les affreux,″ or horrible ones, he fought for three decades in campaigns in Biafra, Angola, Chad, then-white-ruled Rhodesia and Yemen as well as Benin and the Comoros.
During that period, Denard benefited from France’s interventionist policy in ex-colonies. He claimed his 1977 coup attempt in Benin was endorsed by Paris, and that he was acting for French interests in West Africa.
He said his goal was to combat communism.
``With Bob Denard, you have to put a big capital `S’ in the word service,″ he testified in his 1993 trial.
A former French ambassador to Africa, Muric Delauney, corroborated Denard’s claim of official backing, testifying that the government of then-President Valery Giscard d’Estaing approved Denard’s plans in Benin.
But France has sought to spruce up its post-colonial image in recent years, and the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement Thursday ``firmly condemning″ the Comoros coup.
While the failed Benin coup left seven dead and some 50 wounded, the French court convicted him only of criminal association and slapped his hands with a five-year suspended sentence. The Foreign Ministry statement Thursday noted that the conviction included no judicial restraints on his movement.
A year after Benin, Denard was at it again, leading a successful coup in the Comoros that installed Ahmed Abdallah Abderrahmane in the presidency. As commander of the national guard, Denard was the power behind the president until Abdallah was shot and killed in a dispute with Denard’s men in November 1989.
After several weeks of turmoil, the French military sent 3,000 men to seize control from Denard and his men, and Denard fled to South Africa.
He remained there until 1993, when he elected to return to France to face charges in connection with the failed Benin coup. He also faces charges of murder and theft in connection with Abdallah’s assassination.
Born in the northwestern city of Caen in 1929, Denard is the son of a noncommissioned officer in the French colonial army. His real name is believed to be Gilbert Bourgeaud, but he was best known as Bob Denard, one of about a dozen aliases he has assumed.
Denard’s career as a hired gun began in 1961 when he learned that experienced soldiers were needed in the Belgian Congo, present-day Zaire, to train government troops. During the 1950s, he had served in France’s colonial army in Vietnam and aided the Moroccan police force. A subsequent stint in business left him restless.
In his years as a mercenary, Denard also served the Shah of Iran, King Hassan II of Morocco and President Omar Bongo of Gabon. He claimed he worked with British intelligence in Yemen and with the CIA in Angola.
In the Comoros, Denard professed to have converted to Islam _ the islands’ most predominant religion _ and lived the life of a king without a crown. He built a luxurious farm of 1,800 acres and married a Comoran hotel receptionist as his sixth wife and had two children. He had seven children from his previous marriages.
The whereabouts of his current family were not immediately known.
In a 1978 interview, Denard was quoted as saying the Comoros was among the last African nations where a handful of mercenaries could still take power. But he said that kind of operation was fast becoming a thing of the past.
Perhaps, it seems, nostalgia persuaded him otherwise.