Paris - France prepared yesterday for a possible military intervention to oust mercenaries who seized power in the Indian Ocean Comoro islands while sending increasingly stern warnings to the rebels, officials said.
The Defence Ministry put French forces in the Indian Ocean on alert and government sources said preparations were under way for possible action unless Bob Denard, a veteran French soldier of fortune, abandoned his operation.
The Foreign Ministry announced that Paris had cut off vital economic aid to the Comoros and warned the mercenaries that they would be held responsible for the safety of hostages, including President Said Mohamed Djohar.
Officials played down a comment by the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, that there was "no question of a military intervention", saying President Jacques Chirac was monitoring the situation closely.
"This would be an obvious low-cost, low-risk opportunity to demonstrate the government's resolution and its commitment to Africa," one diplomatic Africa-watcher said.
Fighting continued yesterday, with the mercenaries meeting fresh resistance. At least seven people, including two white mercenaries, were killed after loyalist forces retook the main Comoros airport from mercenaries. Residents told Reuter by telephone from the Comoros that the other five dead were members of the gendarmerie which mounted a fierce counterattack.
They said the battles were taking place halfway between the airport and Moroni city. The comic opera coup staged by a veteran French "dog of war" and a handful of hired guns recruited in South Africa was a potential embarrassment to Mr Chirac, recalling skulduggery by French agents and mercenary friends in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Foreign Ministry called for the restoration of constitutional order in the former French colony, one of the world's poorest countries, which has experienced 17 coups or coup attempts since it gained independence in 1975. Yves Doutriaux, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said France had a 1978 defence agreement with the Comoros which dealt with "external aggression".
He declined to be drawn on how Paris would respond to an appeal for intervention from the Prime Minister, Caabi Elyachroutu Mohamed, who took refuge in the French embassy in Moroni when the mercenaries landed on Thursday and captured Djohar. However, the embassy allowed him to broadcast calls for intervention on French radio and television.
"France has not promised anything at all. We are waiting," Mr Caabi said, adding that he had requested French intervention "to restore the rule of law and democracy. They cannot leave a country hostage to mercenaries".
France has about 30 military advisers in Moroni. A defence ministry spokesman said it had a 130-man Foreign Legion combat company on Mayotte, a Comoro island which chose to stay French in a 1975 referendum. It has more troops on the island of La Reunion, as well as a helicopter-carrying frigate, a transport ship and two gunboats. The ships could reach the Comoros in 48 hours if Mr Chirac ordered intervention.