The Comoros government has welcomed France's rejection of a request for political asylum by Anjouan’s toppled rebel leader, Mohammed Bacar, but its refusal to extradite the ousted Colonel has sparked outrage in the impoverished Indian Ocean archipelago.
"We are relieved that France is not granting asylum to someone like Bacar, but we do not understand why they do not want to send him here," Comoros government spokesman Abdourahim Said Bakar told IRIN. The Comoros Union government has accused Bacar of crimes against humanity and wants him to stand trial either at home or in an international court.
Mohammed Bacar refused to step down as president of Anjouan, one of three main islands in the Comoros, after a disputed election in June 2007. He fled when a military operation backed by the African Union (AU) allowed the central government to regain control of Anjouan in March.
The rebel leader and about 20 key aides escaped to the nearby French island of Mayotte. They were arrested for illegally entering French territory and being in possession of arms, and held in military custody on Reunion, another French island in the Indian Ocean.
On 15 May the Reunion refugee authority announced that France would not grant asylum, but also would not return Bacar to Comoros for risk of persecution. Government spokesman Bakar rejected the notion that Mohammed Bacar might not face a fair trial.
"There are false accusations against us. Yes, we have the death penalty, but ... we guarantee Mohamed Bacar a fair trial," he said. "He should be punished for the crimes he has committed; nothing more."
|There are false accusations against us. Yes, we have the death penalty, but ... we guarantee Mohamed Bacar a fair trial|
The Comoros government has applied for Mohammed Bacar to be extradited and a court ruling on this is expected at the end of May, but relations with France have grown increasingly tense.
Many people in the Comoros believe the French government may have played a role in the escape of Bacar and his supporters from Anjouan, sparking widespread anti-French sentiment and demonstrations in the national capital, Moroni.
Their suspicions were compounded when a French helicopter made an emergency landing on Anjouan just days before the assault force landed. France said the helicopter was on the lookout for illegal fishing activity off the coast of Mayotte, but the incident remains shrouded in mystery.
According to the Comoros government, some 200 Bacar loyalists were imprisoned after the assault and are now awaiting trial. The government spokesman said a home trial for Mohammed Bacar would be symbolic, signalling hope of better times to come.
Political problems and poverty
With a population of 700,000, Comoros is one of the poorest and most indebted nations in the world. Incomes have been shrinking in real terms for the past 20 years, falling to an average US$633 per capita in 2004.
The deep-rooted poverty and social problems affecting most of Anjouan's 300,000 people have mostly stemmed from years of general underdevelopment throughout the islands, but worsened during the roughly seven years of rule by the ousted Bacar government.
Political volatility has been a hallmark of Comoros since the islands achieved independence from France in 1975. To date the archipelago has weathered about 20 successful and attempted coups.
A complex electoral system, brokered in 2001 by the Organisation of African Unity, predecessor of the AU, provides for a semi-autonomous government and president for each of the three islands, with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government.
A re-run of Anjouan's presidential poll is due mid-June.