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Comoro Islands, since 1975
By Yosy & Tom Cooper, with additional details from Manuel Ferreira (SADF)
Sep 2, 2003, 10:51

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Comoros are a mountainous archipelago in the Indian Ocean, consisting of three volcanic main islands – Njazidja, Nzwani and Mwali (formerly Grande-Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli, respectively), between the African coast and Madagascar.

Originally populated by immigrants from Africa, Indonesia, and Arabia, Comoro Islands were ceded to the French from 1841 until 1909. During the WWII Comoros were occupied by the British, and then granted administrative autonomy within the French Union, in 1945. In 1969 Comoros were permitted to organize internal self-government, but in 1974 the population voted to become independent – except for Mayotte, which remained under French control.

Capital of Union of Comoros is Moroni. Because of poor soil, lack of natural resources and overpopulation, the country is facing immense problems. There are only some 750km of roads, of which 540 are gravel: the industry is barely existent and otherwise there is only weak agricultural economy (including fishing, hunting and forestry) that depends heavily on foreign loans to sustain a population of roughly 549.000, which is of mixed – African, Arab, Malay, and Indian – descent. French and Arabic are the official languages.

The Union of the Comoros gained independence from France in July 1975: ever since the country endured no less but 19 coups and coup attempts.

(Map by Tom Cooper with help of Encarta 2003)

Initially under a one-party rule, with President Ahmed Abdallah Abderrahman, Comoros were admitted to the UN on 12 November 1975. The inner-political problems began almost immediately: a group calling itself “United National Front” opposed Abderrahman’s power and favoured a more conciliatory approach to France. Abderrahman was deposed on 3 August 1975, in a coup lead by leftist Ali Soilih – but actually run by a French mercenary Bob Denard (who already worked for Moise Tshombe in Katanga, in the early 1960s). Soilih was declared the head of the government on 2 January 1976. Supported by the “Revolutionary Council of State”, and “Revolutionary Youth”, Soilih set about transforming the Comoros from a colonial dependency to a progressive socialist state within the shortest possible time. In true “Red Guard” tradition, his followers destroyed all the old government records, and – with help of two Douglas DC-4 transports of AirComore (one of which was loaded with weapons and the other with the dictator and his followers) – decided to invade the Mayotte Island. Once Soilih’s first aircraft landed there, however, the locals blocked the runway and thus prevented the landing of the second DC-4 (one with weapons and ammunition). Consequently, the invasion of Mayotte ended before it really began.

In May 1978 Denard was back on the Comoros, landing with a group of white mercenaries off the beach near the town of Itsandar. After swiftly deploying to Moroni, the mercs surrounded the Presidential Palace and Army headquarter, placing Soilih under house-arrest. He was shot dead few days later, during a supposed “rescue attempt”.

Abderrahman was re-called from France and declared President again; with Rhodesian financial support, the mercenaries were turned into "Guarde Residentielle" (GP) - the official military force of Comoros. From 1980, South Africa smoothly took over the financing and training of the GP, which remained under Denard's command until he appointed his right-hand, Dominique Malacrino (alias "Commandant Marques), the new chief and - at least officially - retired.

After surviving four coup attempts, in 1978, Abderrahman proclaimed the Union of the Comoros a Federal Islamic Republic ("Republicque Federale Islamique des Comores"), and remained president for more than ten years longer. In reality, Denard was still in charge of Comores: he even converted to Islam, took the name of Said Musapha Madhjoub, and married two attractive local women.

In 1989, the South Africans eventually decided that Denard would have to leave. When a corresponding official request from Pretoria was turned down, the GP's budget was cut by 50%. In response, Denard expelled the official representant of the South African Defence Force (SADF). Few days later, on 27 November 1989, Abderrahman - who survived four coup attempts by the time - was assassinated, supposedly by members of the Forces Armées Comoriennes (FAC), Comorian National Army. Denard immediately disolved the FAC and arrested its officers.

The French, who already had several warships nearby, finally ordered Denard to leave. The mercenary refused and promised to fight back: GP troops were deployed around strategic points, especially Moroni. The French eventually invaded, but as first captured the airport, using helicopters to deploy their paras. The later then advanced on Moroni and GP-barracks, just outside the city. After negotiations, Denard was permited not to surreneder, but to leave with his officers. They were evacuated on board a Safair C-130 Hercules transport, armed and in uniform, while the command of the GP taken over by a French officer.

French Puma helicopter with Commandos as seen in November 1989, after landing on Comoro Islands. (Pit Weinert collection)

Sayd Mohamed Djohar became interim president and subsequently won election in a multi-party contest. During his presidency, Djahar had to survive an impeachment attempt (in 1991) and several coup attempts. Probably the most serious was the one that occurred in 1995.

View on Moroni - official capital of Comoros - from the sea, showing one of the local mosques. This picturesque motive is badly misleading, then the City of Moroni was the scene of no less but 19 coups and coup-attempts since 1975 alone! (ACIG.org archives)

Operation “Kaskari”

On the early morning hours of 28 September 1995, 33 mercenaries led again by Bod Denard arrived aboard the ship Vulcain in the port of Moroni, and launched the operation code-named “Kaskari”. Deploying swiftly into the city, they had no particular problems to depose the legal government before there was any kind of reaction from Comoran Security Force (as the Comoran military is officially named).

Once in power, Denard worked feverishly in order to stave off the expected French counter-invasion. He immediately began creating a civilian government. Nevertheless, he also established a new Presidential Guard (PG), organized from loyal members of the old guard – trained by Denard himself. The newly-established PG-units were mainly armed with heavy machine-guns and immediately deployed on strategic points around the island, particularly around the two airports, Hahaya, and Iconi.

The French had advance warning about this but did nothing until the day of the invasion. President Jacques Chirac then severely denounced this action, requesting the Minister of Defence and the Army C-in-C to draft plans for re-taking the Comoro Islands. Intelligence was swiftly gathered and the French Special Operations Command (COS) immediately placed on alert. Teams from DRM – a total of some 200 special-forces operators - were discretely deployed into the Indian Ocean area, aboard a frigate and two patrol boats of the French Navy, while a GIGN team and the so-called “Commando Hubert” with several Aérospatiale SA.330 Puma helicopters were also in the area. Finally, prepared for the coming counter-invasion were some 400 French Marines as well.

Eventually, the French deployed around 600 troops against a force of 33 mercenaries and 300 dissidents. Ignoring Denard’s efforts for organization of a civilian government, on 3 October the French government gave the green light for a military intervention, code-named Operation Azalee.

Operation “Azalee”

The French counterattack was launched around 23:00hrs of 3 October, when members of the Commando Hubert reconnoitred the beaches near the two airfields.

GIGN/Commando Hubert diver seen fully equipped. French divers from this unit were the first to reach the Comoro Island prior to the main French attack. (Photo: commandohubert.free.fr )

Shortly after, around 02:30hrs of 4 October three Puma helicopters delivered the troops of the 1er RPIMa/13e RDP to the Hahaya airport. They initially came under fire from few heavy machine-guns, but using the cover of darkness and night-vision gear the French troops were able to swiftly secure the whole airport and the local area, capturing some 20 PG-troops in the process.

The French deployed several Aérospatiale SA.330 Puma transport helicopters during the operation Azalee, and these brought the first wave of French Marines to the Hahaya airport. (ACIG.org archives)

By 03:00hr the Commando Hubert secured the Iconi airport as well, and subsequently elements of the 5e RIAOM, 2e RAMa, and 2e RPIMa were deployed aboard C.160 Transall transports to guard both airfields, while Commando Hubert was sent to capture Kandani barracks. This operation was executed very swiftly, and 30 PG-troops were captured in the process. Meanwhile, 15 GIGN operators were deployed to liberate the French embassy in Moroni, while another part of Commando Hubert assaulted and seized Vulcain.

The main air assault began around 05:00hrs, when two Transalls delivered elements of the Foreign Legion to Hahaya. 30 minutes later the Legionnaires were joined by Marines from 2ea RIAOM and artillery of the 2e RAMa. By 05:50hrs the French established a secure zone around the airport and then the supplies started arriving by additional transport aircraft while the French troops moved towards Moroni.

Already around 06:30hrs the French reached the barracks at Kandani, encircling Denard and a larger group of mercenaries. Simultaneously, another French task force raced to a pass where a force of 200 insurgents was reported. Once Denard realized that the French were underway to re-take Comoros he ordered his mercenaries not to fight. The odds were heavily against him, but the fact is that by deploying a vastly superior force the French made any resistance futile, in turn preventing a bloodshed. The right combination of marines, paras and special forces teams ensured that the French were able to put all three islands under their control within less than 48 hours. Units such as GIGN and Commando Hubert were used as a spearhead and to clear potentially dangerous buildings, while the Marines and paras mopped up and guarded security zones around strategically important installations.

Realizing that all escape routes were blocked, Denard gave up at 03:00hrs of 5 October 1995: he was immediately captured by GIGN gendarmes, taken to the Iconi airport and flown out to France to be jailed.

A timely deployment and utilization of French special forces was decisive for the success of Operation Azalee. Within only seven days planes were drawn up, air assets, supplies and roughly 1.000 soldiers deployed in support of this enterprise.

French Air Force C.160 Transall transports proved indispensable during this opeation. Having a capability of carrying loads of up to 16.000kg or 68 fully-equipped troops, they were the main mean of reaching the Comoros for the French troops of the first attack wave. (Photo: AdA)

No End of Instability

Nevertheless, President Djohar was not to remain in power for very long: in 1996 Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim was elected president instead. In 1997 there was an uprising at Nzwani and Mwali, and the rebels brought both islands under their control, declaring their succession from Union and a desire to return to French rule. Nothing of this happened, but in 1999 Nzwani and Mwali were granted greater autonomy. In the year 2000 - following a new coup, in April 1999, during which Colonel Azali Assoumani rose to power – Nzwani voted for independence. Azali pledged to resolve the secessionist crisis through a confederal arrangement, named “2000 Fomboni Accord”. However, during a new uprising, in 2001, forces favouring a re-unition with Comoros seized power again, and subsequently all three islands were granted additional autonomy – approved by a new constitution, confirmed by voters in December of the same year. Azali resigned in early 2002, prior to new elections: these were two times disputed before he was finally declared a President in May of the same year.

Eventually each island in the archipelago elected its own president, but on 26 June 2001 Azali was sworn as president of the Union again. Next elections are slanted for 2007.

Interestingly, although a certain Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, from the Comoro Islands, is described as the “chief planner” of the terror attack against the US embassy in Kenya, and known to be a member of al-Qaida, the USA have so far seen no involvement in Comoran matters. However, it is known that the French Air Force is sometimes flying reconnaissance missions in the area with C.160 Transall transports based on the Reunion Island.


Parts of this article are based on feature "Operation Azalee", published on specwarnet.com.

Additional details were gathered from CIA factfile (www.cia.gov) and different other sources of general nature.

Special thanks to Mr. Manuel Ferreira, former SADF officer, who maintains a highly interesting website with recollections about his service times at:
South African Military Intelligence (1987 - 1994)

- as well as:
South African Military Intelligence: COMORES

© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org

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