Comoros rebel defiant of African sanctions

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MORONI, Oct 11 (Reuters) The leader of a rebellious island in the Comoros archipelago rejected new African Union (AU) sanctions today as likely to hurt the population while radicalising his position even further.

A six-month impasse over disputed elections on the breakaway island of Anjouan has brought a new round of instability to the Indian Ocean archipelago, which has endured 19 successful or attempted coups since independence from France in 1975.

Trying to force Anjouan president Mohamed Bacar to accept new elections and respect national authorities, the AU yesterday slapped sanctions on top officials including a travel ban, freezing of funds, and restriction of air and sea links.

''The AU measures are going to produce the opposite effect,'' Bacar told Reuters by telephone. ''They force us to become even more radical in our positions.'' Comorian federal troops tried unsuccessfully to take control of Anjouan buildings and install a replacement president as mandated by a court in May.

Several soldiers died in those clashes.

Then Bacar was re-elected in a June poll that went ahead despite the federal government's order it should be delayed, a boycott of other candidates, and international condemnation.

The national government of President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, an Islamic imam-turned-politician, has since threatened to re-invade Anjouan and has appealed for AU military help.

The AU says its sanctions will be applied for 45 days first, before it considers ''further measures''.

Bacar said the AU, as a mediator, had no right to impose sanctions, and should support his call for inter-island dialogue.

''The solution to this crisis is Comorian and we have proposed an inter-Comorian round-table,'' he said.

''How can you really think three months of negotiations are long enough and that it is useful and urgent to take measures penalising the people of Anjouan?'' he added of the AU's involvement in the crisis at the national government's request.

If elections are to be re-held, that should apply on all three islands, not just Anjouan, Bacar added.

All Comorians would suffer from sanctions, he said.

''In Anjouan, we live better than in Grande Comore and Moheli, where there is shortage of nearly all basic products. Those two islands supply themselves from Anjouan. So this embargo risks hurting them in the first place.'' A spokesman for Sambi's government welcomed the AU move.

The rocky Comoros islands, which lie off east Africa, retain some autonomy through local leaderships under the terms of a 2001 peace deal, but also share a rotating national president.

First settled by Arab seafarers about 1,000 years ago, and later serving as a haven for pirates pillaging Indian Ocean shipping, the islands, which have a population of about 700,000, were annexed by France in 1904.

REUTERS AE ND1936

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