Murderous past catches up with French `dog of war'

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The Independent Online
ROBERT "COLONEL Bob" Denard has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people in the past four decades.

That fact is scarcely open to question. But it is not the issue before the Paris assizes today. The court must decide whether Colonel Bob, 72, France's most notorious mercenary, took part in the murder of one man, the president of the Comoros, 10 years ago.

The trial, which could last a week, may cast some new light on the shadowy African dealings of French governments over the past 30 years. Mr Denard was involved in scores of coups and civil wars, from the Congolese and Nigerian conflicts in the 1960s up to his pro-apartheid activities in black Africa in the 1980s.

He claims, and many senior French officials confirm, that he often acted with the implicit approval - even the prompting - of French secret services and the mysterious and powerful "parallel" network for French political and commercial interference in Africa, created by President Charles de Gaulle. If he was a "dog of war", Le Figaro said, he was often a "dog on a leash".

Why then is he on trial in France? The answer is twofold. First, the French establishment, trying to clean up its Africa act, cut Mr Denard loose in the late 1980s. Secondly, the French judicial system is no longer willing to submit to political interference to suppress potentially embarrassing trials.

Mr Denard, who was never a colonel, had a chequered French military career before becoming a mercenary in the Congolese civil war in 1960. By the end of the decade he was senior figure in the clandestine French interference in the Nigerian war of secession.

He is accused, with two other men, of taking part in the murder in November 1989 of President Ahmed Abdallah of the Comoros, a coup-haunted former French colony in the Indian Ocean. The tiny republic's 18th coup since independence in 1975 took place last Thursday.

Unlike most of the previous rebellions, Mr Denard, now retired in the Paris suburbs, appears not to have been involved.

He had twice led coups to bring Mr Abdallah to power and one to depose him. He had acted for many years as head of his presidential guard. At the time of the murder in 1989 both the French government and the apartheid regime in Pretoria had withdrawn their support for Mr Denard.

The prosecution alleges that the mercenary had the president killed to secure his position on the islands. Mr Denard admits that he was in the room at the time but denies any part in the murder. He says the president's bodyguard burst in and fired his sub-machine-gun at him (Denard). He ducked and the bullets hit the president. One of Mr Denard's associates, also on trial, then shot the bodyguard.

This may seem an unlikely version of events but Mr Denard's defence lawyer,Alexandre Varaut, says the prosecution case is even more unbelievable. "If Denard had wanted to carry out a coup, he would have done it better than that," he said. "It's been his job for 40 years."