Fighting Keeps Up in Comoros; French on Alert : Africa: Coup attempt is fourth led by gun-for-hire. Johannesburg is probing whether launch occurred from its territory.
As forces loyal to French mercenary Bob Denard continued to battle for control of the tiny Indian Ocean republic of the Comoro Islands on Friday, France placed its armed forces in the region on alert and negotiated for the safe evacuation of hundreds of tourists.
The coup attempt is a reprise of three previous efforts by the legendary Denard to take over the former French colony, where he wielded power behind the scenes for a decade until his ouster in 1989.
The deadly exploits by the French gun-for-hire, now 66, span three decades on the continent. South Africa, under a previous white-minority government, once had Denard on its payroll and gave him sanctuary.
But Friday, officials of the new black-majority South African government began investigating allegations that Denard launched his latest attack from South African soil, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Johannesburg. Criminal charges could result if the South African connection is proved.
The Comoro republic, an archipelago of three islands off the southeast coast of Africa between Mozambique and Madagascar, declared independence from France in 1975. A fourth island, Mayotte, remains under French administration.
On Friday, a soldier who claimed to have won power in the coup pledged democratic elections and said he aims to stamp out sleaze.
Capt. Yaacoub Combo, in a statement dated Sept. 28 from the so-called Military Transition Committee, accused captured President Said Mohamed Djohar of “fraudulently staying in power with the sole aim of enriching himself on the back of the Comoran people.”
The statement was written before residents reported that at least seven people were killed in fresh fighting Friday as loyalist forces retook the main Comoro airport from the invaders.
The residents said by telephone from Great Comoro, one of the three islands whose area totals half the area of Rhode Island, that two of the dead were mercenaries and five were members of the local gendarmerie who had mounted a fierce counterattack on the hired soldiers.
The mercenaries took over the national radio and announced in a broadcast Friday that they had formed the military committee to help create a new government.
Denard’s forces, believed to be made up of about 20 mercenaries and dozens of Comoran rebels, also controlled the main military base in Moroni, the capital.
Also Friday, the United States suspended aid to the islands and urged restoration of the elected government.
“We very much regret the violence that has occurred so far and urge all parties to avoid further bloodshed,” State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said in Washington.
He said aid to the islands--about $375,000--will be suspended until the situation is clarified.