Comoros Coup Leader Says He’ll Surrender
MORONI, Comoros Islands (AP) _ French troops landed at dawn and battled with mercenaries on the Comoros Islands today, and the leader of a coup said he wanted to negotiate a surrender.
Reporters saw at least three dead and 11 wounded, including two French journalists. French officers reported no casualties among the more than 1,000 members of the French Special Operation Command, and said they took 29 prisoners, including two French mercenaries.
Coup leader Bob Denard said he would ``negotiate the conditions of surrender″ with the French, who swarmed ashore at first light today to neutralize his two dozen mercenaries and Comorian soldier supporters.
``There’s no question of disarming my men, or they’ll be dead tomorrow,″ the 66-year-old, silver-haired French mercenary told reporters. ``I don’t want to have a bloodbath on my conscience. We will negotiate.″
Camouflage-clad French troops, some wearing black face paint, seized two airports this morning: the main one north of Moroni and an abandoned one near the central harbor. They also secured the area around the French Embassy, near the 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.
Yachroutu today announced in a fax to news organizations that he had formed a new coalition government supported by 13 parties. Yachroutu, who said earlier that the constitution designated he should take over in the president’s absence, said he had also formed a 12-member Cabinet.
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. A taxi driver transporting a French newsman was also killed today.
The injured included French reporter Christophe Gautier of VSD magazine and French photographer Patrick Durant of the Sygma agency.
Nine of the wounded were in hospitals, doctors said, and two were at the French Embassy.
More than 1,000 French troops that landed at the main airport were slowly moving toward the city center, taking control of the area as they went along. They carried rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, but no resistance was reported after the initial clashes.
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.
But the two men named as co-presidents _ Said Ali Kemal and Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim _ said the mercenaries should stay through elections planned for January or February.
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 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 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.