Comoros rebel leader flees to French-run island

Comorian rebel leader Mohamed Bacar has fled to the French-run Indian Ocean island of Mayotte from nearby Anjouan, where Comorian troops had been searching for him, French and Comorian officials said on Wednesday.

Joint African Union and Comorian forces attacked and seized control of Anjouan island on Tuesday to topple Bacar, a French-trained former gendarme who seized power in 2001 and clung on after an illegal election last year.

France’s Ministry for Overseas Territories in Paris confirmed late on Wednesday Bacar was on Mayotte but made no further comment.

A senior Comorian government official earlier told Reuters French authorities had told him Bacar was on Mayotte with 11 others.

”The Comorian justice system put out an international arrest warrant a long time ago. We will see whether the French authorities will respect it,” he said.

Comorian troops had earlier combed Anjouan, one of three islands in the coup-prone Indian Ocean archipelago, for Bacar after taking part in the first African Union-backed assault to oust a renegade government.

A federal government spokesperson had said late on Tuesday that Bacar was thought to be trying to flee by boat to Mayotte disguised as a woman.

Ambulances rushed wounded rebels to hospital on Anjouan on Wednesday and sporadic gunfire was heard. Officials said three rebels were killed and 10 wounded in the clashes.

The attacking troops took more than 100 prisoners, the bulk of them members of the Anjouan police force and some civilians close to Bacar, a member of the government’s political-military committee said by phone from Anjouan.

Comoros plans to install an interim government in Anjouan by the end of the week to prepare for new elections in two or three months, government spokesperson Abdourahim Said Bacar said.

A contingent of AU troops was expected to remain on the island to ensure the voting went ahead, he added.

Despite the military’s claim of victory on Tuesday, some residents feared pockets of resistance.

”Groups loyal to the colonel [Bacar] are hiding in the forest. Until they are captured, we’ll be frightened that they may come in the evening to take revenge,” said Roukia Halidi, a woman from Anjouan’s capital, Mutsamudu, on national radio.

African Union troops

The AU has deployed 1 350 troops to the spice- and perfume-producing islands and will see the successful operation as a way of offsetting the mixed records of its troubled peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Sudan.

Critics say the AU picked a soft target. With a history of assassinations, mercenary invasions and 20 coups or attempted rebellions since independence from France in 1975, Comoros is notorious for its political instability.

France and the United States backed the assault on the island of 300 000 people, but continental power South Africa criticised it.

Comoros was ”particularly disappointed” by South African President Thabo Mbeki’s position, government spokesperson Abdourahim Said Bacar said.

He accused the Anjouan leader of setting up a dictatorship and said Bacar would answer for his crimes in court. ”We have reports and witnesses about people being tortured, people being raped, even killed,” he said.

”We had a physical education teacher whose arms and legs have been broken by Bacar’s men. They have to answer for that. We have to take him to court.”

First settled by Arab seafarers 1 000 years ago, Comoros later became a pirate haven. One of the world’s most indebted nations, the whole archipelago is home to 700 000 people. — Reuters

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