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Armed Men Invade Comoran Island - 2001-12-19

The government of the Comoros Islands has dispatched troops to the Comoran island of Moheli after more than a dozen armed men invaded the island.

The masked soldiers landed by speedboat on the island of Moheli, off the Mozambican coast.

After a clash with government forces, the invaders seized control of the local police station and cut off telephone connections to the outside world. However, island authorities say they have regained control of the station.

The identity of the men, who are white, remains a mystery. At first, they were reported to be U.S. soldiers, leading to speculation that they were Americans searching for members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

But these reports are being dismissed by government officials. Comoran Prime Minister Hamada Madi Bolero said he believes the men are mercenaries trying to destabilize his government ahead of an upcoming referendum.

On Sunday, citizens of the three islands that make up the Comorian Federation - Grande Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan - are voting on a new constitution. The vote is aimed at ending a secessionist crisis that dates back to 1997, when separatists on the island of Anjouan unilaterally declared their independence.

Ahmed Rajab, editor of the London-based newsletter Africa Analysis, believes the invasion is linked to the referendum. "What I think is happening in Moheli is another attempt by white mercenaries who are bent on sabotaging every effort at bringing about reconciliation between the three islands of Comoros," he said. "It has been known for quite some time, and opposition leaders in Comoros have constantly been harping on this point, that certain elements within the French intelligence network and certain other French interests have been colluding in sabotaging any return to Comoros as it was known before Anjouan separated from the rest of the islands."

Since the Comoros gained their independence from France in 1975, there have been many coups and attempted coups on the islands. Though little is known about the men responsible for the invasion, an official of the Organization of African Unity is quoted as saying they spoke perfect French.