Comoros troops free prisoners after foiled coup

Nasser Nafion, who spent the past four months in jail, rejoices after being freed with other political prisoners in Anjouan, Comoros, on Wednesday.Jerome Delay / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Government troops, now in control of the capital of Anjouan island, freed all the prisoners from the main jail Wednesday to the cheers of residents.

African Union soldiers who had backed the government's bid to oust a renegade colonel who had seized control of Anjouan stopped civilians from reaching the airport. Sporadic gunfire could be heard in the area, but it was not clear what was going on there.

Hundreds of government troops backed by African Union forces on Tuesday moved into the capital, Mutsamudu, which had been held by Col. Mohamed Bacar, claiming the presidency of the island. Bacar, who has so far eluded troops, had spoken of seeking independence for the island.

Anjouan is part of the Comoros — an archipelago of three main islands 250 miles off Africa's southeast coast. Each of the three main islands has a regional president under the country's main leader, President Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, who is based in Moroni on Grand Comore.

There was evidence of looting of some government buildings in the capital on Wednesday. At the Interior Ministry, an Associated Press photographer saw papers and files scattered around, and all the furniture was gone. At the main police station a child wore a police cap, while another played with a riot shield.

Comoros soldiers freed all the prisoners from Mutsamudu's main jail, including a number of political prisoners, on Wednesday. Residents cheered the freed prisoners as they went to the town center.

'The people have saved us'
One of the freed prisoners, Nasser Nafion, 40, said he was picked up by police on Jan. 12 at the airport where he works and was told he was being jailed on the grounds that he is a distant relative of Sambi.

When Comoros soldiers got to Mutsamudu, troops backing Bacar came to the jail wanting to kill the prisoners, Nafion told the AP.

"We were saved by the penitentiary guards who refused to open our cells to them," said Nafion. "This is the best day of my life. The people have saved us."

For a second day, most fishermen have not gone to sea and most shops remain closed.

Defense Chief of Staff Mohamed Dosara said by telephone from the main island of Grand Comore that his forces had taken control of the capital and that "We have met a small amount of resistance."

There was no official word on casualties, but an elderly man was seen being carried Tuesday after he apparently was hit in the hip by a stray bullet. Two African Union soldiers also appeared to have minor injuries.

South African President Thabo Mbeki criticized the operation, calling it "unfortunate."

"It takes the Comoros back to the use of force to solve a problem that could have been resolved with negotiations," he said on the South African Broadcasting Corp. television on Tuesday. "There was no need to deploy troops."

Mbeki said Bacar had written to his government with a pledge to hold elections in two months.

Rebel leader on the run
Bacar, who seized power in Anjouan in 2001 and stayed on after an illegal election last year, had drawn increasingly strident warnings from the central government and the African Union. Dosara on Tuesday said troops were searching for Bacar.

One Comoros officer, who asked that his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly, had said government forces had arrested three "high-ranking officers" loyal to Bacar.

About 780 Tanzanian soldiers, 400 Sudanese and 450 Comorans are in place for the Anjouan operation, said French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani. France says its interest in the country is confined to backing the African Union and ensuring the territorial integrity of the Comoros.

The Comoros have experienced a series of coups and political upheavals since gaining independence from France in 1975. The late Bob Denard, a notorious French mercenary, controlled the Comoros behind a figurehead leader for most of the 1980s, following a coup he led.