Troops from the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros seized the rebel island of Anjouan on Tuesday with African Union military help, and the government said its self-declared leader had fled dressed as a woman.
The forces attacked at dawn to topple Mohamed Bacar, a French-trained former gendarme who took power in 2001 and clung on after an illegal election last year on the wooded, hilly island of 300Ã‚Â 000 people.
”Anjouan island is under total control of the army,” Major Ahmed Sidi told reporters on the neighbouring island of Moheli.
”So far we have no dead or wounded to lament. The rebel chiefs have all run away, and none has yet been found.”
A federal government spokesperson said Bacar had been spotted in the village of Sandapoini from where he was thought to be trying to escape by boat to the nearby French-run island of Mayotte.
”It seems, according to various sources, that he is dressed as a woman,” the spokesperson, Abdourahim Said Bacar, told Reuters.
With phone connections to Anjouan cut, there was no independent confirmation of that.
From early morning, gunfire and explosions echoed across Anjouan, one of three islands in the coup-prone archipelago that won independence from France in 1975.
Hundreds of Comorian and AU troops quickly took the capital, airport and other towns, officials said. One said several of Bacar’s aides had been arrested, including his justice minister.
The AU had deployed about 1Ã‚Â 350 troops to the spice and perfume-producing islands, which lie 300km east of the African mainland and have a population of about 700Ã‚Â 000.
Test for African Union
Analysts say the AU was hoping a relatively easy victory in Anjouan would earn some international prestige to offset the struggles of its peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Somalia.
But the real test for the AU was whether it could prove as effective in resolving more high-profile conflicts, they said.
”There is nothing in Comoros — it’s an easier pig to slaughter than Chad or Somalia. They’re picking on a small political animal,” said Chrysantus Ayangafac, an Addis Ababa-based researcher for the Institute of Security Studies.
The tough AU stance on Anjouan, which tried to break away from the other islands in 1997, may reflect its traditional aversion to any secessionist moves on a continent where borders were often drawn arbitrarily by colonial masters.
Spearheading the AU mission in Comoros are Tanzania and Sudan, which themselves face calls for independence from semi-autonomous Zanzibar and southern Sudan respectively.
But continental power South Africa, which had tried to help mediate an end to the crisis, criticised the military assault.
”I think it is very unfortunate that the military action has taken place because it takes the Comoros back to this history of force instead of resolving matters peacefully,” President Thabo Mbeki told reporters in Pretoria.
Comoros’ federal government accuses Bacar of secessionist aspirations, although he maintains he is fighting for more autonomy rather than independence.
A statement said Comoros President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, an Islamist businessman and native of Anjouan, was committed to holding new Anjouan elections as soon as possible.
Many Anjouan inhabitants accuse Bacar of ruling through the threat of violence and repressing any dissent.
The Comoros islands — which grow vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang, a flower whose oils are used in aromatherapy — were first settled by Arab seafarers 1Ã‚Â 000 years ago, then later became a pirate haven.
After suffering some 20 coups or coup attempts since independence, Comoros is trying to shrug off a history of instability. – Reuters