Comoros coup leader surrenders to France

TOM COHEN

Associated Press

Moroni - Bob Denard and his two dozen soldiers of fortune surrendered to French special forces and police yesterday, a week after he launched his third coup in the Comoros islands.

In driving rain, "Colonel" Denard was the first to walk out of military headquarters and undergo a body search by two French commandos. He appeared relaxed, joking with French journalists. The commandos then escorted Africa's most notorious general-for-hire to a car.

Two of his lieutenants followed and were placed in separate cars. The three vehicles sped to an abandoned airfield near Moroni's harbour, and from there Mr Denard boarded a helicopter for Hahaya airfield, 12 miles north of the city.

He had negotiated with French officers yesterday, agreeing to surrender after being assured his men would not be harmed. "I don't consider myself a prisoner," Mr Denard told journalists as he surrendered. "There are no conditions, there is no surrender

Mr Denard claimed to have taken over the Comoros to save them from a corrupt president. But one Comorian, Abda Mohamed, smiled as he watched the motorcade go by the harbour. "He's gone. It is good," he said. "Now the French must leave us alone."

The other mercenaries and 300 Comorian soldiers who had embraced the coup followed Mr Denard out in groups of 10, and were driven away in minibuses.

Hours after the French took control on Wednesday, Mr Denard freed Mohamed Djohar, the president he deposed one week ago, and announced he was ready to give up on his latest coup attempt.

Mr Denard, grey-haired and limping after decades of soldiering, has staged several coups on this poverty-stricken chain of islands between Mozambique and Madagascar, which he ruled through figurehead presidents from 1978 to 1989, when France negotiated his departure. Wednesday's intervention seemed to mark an end to French tolerance for the buccaneering figure who has claimed to have served French interests around Africa.

At least three people died and 11 were injured in the dawn assault on Wednesday. The dead included two Comorian soldiers and a motorcycle rider killed by gunfire while transporting a French news photographer.

The French had demanded Mr Denard's unconditional surrender, saying they had issued an international warrant for his arrest. Prosecutors in France said that he had illegally left the country as they investigated his role in the 1989 death of another Comorian president, Ahmed Abdallah Abderrahmane.

In a radio broadcast on Wednesday, the Prime Minister, Mohammed Caabi el Yachroutou, who hid in the French embassy during the coup, announced an amnesty for all soldiers who supported the uprising.

Opposition groups accuse Mr Djohar of incompetence and corruption and have demanded new elections as soon as possible.

They were unlikely to support the new coalition government Mr Yachroutou announced in a fax sent to France on Wednesday.

Mr Denard had been living quietly in France since 1993, when he was given a five-year suspended sentence for trying to overthrow the Marxist government of Benin in 1977. He remains under a death sentence in Benin.

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