Sunday, March 23, 2008

AU poised to invade rebel Comoros island of Anjouan

More than 500 African Union troops landed on the Comoros island of Moheli yesterday to join forces massed to retake the rebel island of Anjouan. 400 Tanzanian and 168 Sudanese soldiers join 500 AU soldiers as well as 400 local troops in the port town of Fomboni all poised to end the stand-off between Comoros and Anjouan. The Comoros did not recognise the re-election of Anjouan leader Colonel Mohamed Bacar in June 2007.

The AU has supported the central government in the stand-off and sponsored military support. Senegalese troops will arrive in the next few days, while Libya has provided transport assistance for the operation. Abdul Bacar Soihir, Comoros head of the cabinet, said "The invasion will be very soon." Yahya Abdallah, the Sudanese commander, said as he arrived with a deployment of paratroopers: "We are happy to be here...The Comoran people are our Muslim brothers and we are proud to be able to help them."

The Comoros is an archipelago of islands in the Mozambique Channel of the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. The capital Moroni is on the main island of Grand Comore and Moheli and Anjouan are the other two main islands. Each of the federation's three islands has its own president and government institutions with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government. A standoff between Anjouan and the other two islands has lingered since individual island elections were held in June 2007.

Anjouan is ruled by Mohamed Bicar. Bicar is a former chief of police on Anjouan and took part of a military coup in August 2001 after which he became the head of the country. Bacar has ruled Anjouan outright since 2002, but his re-election in June 2007 was deemed illegal by both the central authorities and the AU citing irregularities and intimidation in the run-up to voting. However Bacar went ahead with the ballot printing his own papers and has since defied calls for him to stand down.

The central government has said it will try Bicar for war crimes and crimes against humanity unless he flees. A Government spokesman said Bacar had committing atrocities against residents of Anjouan, and was responsible for abuse and torture by his security forces. Over two thousand refugees fleeing to Grande Comore have given firsthand accounts of atrocities including torture, rape and burning.

These abuses have worsened since the Moroni Government announced its plan to reclaim the island on 31 January. Comoros Education Minister Abdoulrahime Said Bacar said the government had no alternative after sanctions against Anjouan failed to have any impact. "The army is well prepared, psychologically ready and has the necessary materials, I am confident,” he said. “We want to organise elections."

The Comoros has endured 19 coups or coup attempts since it gained independence from France in 1975 after 130 years of colonial rule. In 1997 Moheli and Anjouan seceded from Grand Comore after a failed attempt by the government to re-establish control over the rebellious islands. The current federal system has been in place since 2002 when a new constitution, brokered by the Organisation of African Unity (predecessor of the AU), mandated the election of a President of Anjouan along with presidents for the other two islands and a federal president. The 830,000 people of the Comoros are among the poorest in Africa and are heavily dependent on foreign aid.

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