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AU peacekeepers head for Comoros

Published May 11, 2007

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By Ahmed Amir Ali

African Union (AU) soldiers were on their way to Comoros on Friday to help keep the peace during next month's elections on the volatile Indian Ocean islands where one local president has refused to stand down.

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National government spokesperson Abdourahim Said Bacar said 40 AU troops were due to arrive later on Friday.

"They will be followed in the coming weeks by reinforcements from the League of Arab States," he said.

Tensions are high on Comoros ahead of the June vote for the local presidencies of the three main islands making up the archipelago, where there have been 19 successful or attempted coups since independence from France in 1975.

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Two central government soldiers died earlier this month in a shootout with local forces on Anjouan island, where local president Mohamed Bacar is refusing to stand down ahead of the vote despite being ordered to by the Comoros constitution court.

Government sources said the AU contingent might deploy immediately in Anjouan "to restore national government authority".

Residents have been bracing for new clashes since national forces were overrun by pro-Bacar local police.

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All three islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Moheli vote on June 10 and again on June 24 if second rounds are necessary.

The islands, with a population of 670 000, retain autonomy through local presidencies under the terms of a 2001 peace deal, but also share a rotating national president.

AU peacekeeping troops also provided security last May in national elections won by Islamic preacher Ahmed Abdullah Mohamed Sambi - the first peaceful transition of power in Comoros since 1975.

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First settled by Arab seafarers a thousand years ago, and later a haven for pirates pillaging ships in the Indian Ocean, the rocky Comoros islands were annexed by France in 1904.

Since independence, Comoros has been infamous for coups and coup attempts - four aided by French mercenary Bob Denard. In one, he and accomplices "invaded" at night on inflatable boats.

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