Comoros leader okays assault on rebel island

( Reuter )- The president of the Comoros archipelago authorized an African Union-backed assault on rebel Anjouan island on Monday, sending helicopters to drop leaflets that warned residents to stay at home.

"In the hours, or the days to come, Anjouan will be liberated by force, or, I dare to hope, the rebels will surrender themselves in order to avoid confrontation," President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi told the nation in a live address.

Some boats were on their way to the tropical, hilly Anjouan from nearby Moheli island, a military source said.

With 1,350 AU troops in support, the national government of the coup-prone Indian Ocean nation hopes a landing on Anjouan will quickly topple its local leader, French-trained former gendarme Mohamed Bacar , who clung to power in an illegal election last year.

Analysts say the AU may be hoping to score a relatively easy victory against Anjouan -- whose population is just 300,000 --- to earn some international prestige to offset the failures of its struggling peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Somalia.

After suffering some 20 coups or coup attempts since independence from France in 1975, the three-island Comoros is trying to shrug off a history of instability.

"Yesterday evening, I gave the order to the national army to join with the African Union forces to re-establish the republican legality in Anjouan ," Sambi added in his speech.

Earlier, helicopters dropped leaflets on Anjouan , saying a military assault was imminent.

"The National Development Army informs all inhabitants that it will be in Anjouan in the coming days or, more likely, the coming hours," read the French-language leaflets, one of which was seen by Reuters.

Also on Monday, all air and sea links were cut to Anjouan and Moheli , where national Comoros and AU troops have joined forces, authorities said.

Some 750 soldiers from Tanzania and 600 from Sudan arrived in recent days to support the assault. A Senegalese contingent was also due.

Accusing Bacar and his associates of crimes including rape, torture, false imprisonment and the forced movement of people, Sambi , however, urged the local population not to take revenge.

And he urged Bacar's militia of several hundred men to surrender.

"If you use your arms, I will hold you responsible for the consequences which follow. You have destroyed the future of the country. If you flee, we will search everywhere, and we will find you in order to judge you," he said.

Sambi has plenty of support at home and in the AU for the operation. But South Africa has expressed reservation, saying dialogue would be preferable.

And the party of Comoros' former national president Colonel Azali Assoumani also questioned the wisdom of an attack.

"The use of any force ... would attract the attention of the population of both Comoros and the international community to the groundless character of a fratricidal war whose motives are not convincing," it said in a written statement.

The central government accuses Bacar of secessionist aspirations, but he says he is fighting for more autonomy rather than independence.

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