In line with a long tradition of foreign military intervention, official and clandestine, international forces are moving in to help the Union government of Comoros re-establish control over the renegade island of Anjouan and save the fragile three-island state in the Indian Ocean from falling apart.
After an African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council meeting on 20 February, the African body revised its stance on the political conflict in the Union of Comoros, moving from fruitless negotiation efforts to diffuse the conflict to backing the Union government's position of using military force. Four AU countries - Libya, Sudan, Senegal and Tanzania - have promised troops and military support.
"The meeting reiterated AU's commitment to the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Comoros," and "mandated the African Union Electoral and Security Assistance Mission (MAES) to the Comoros to deploy in Anjouan in order to facilitate the restoration of the authority of the Union in Anjouan," said an AU Communiqué.
The gathering "agreed on practical military and security measures aimed at supporting the decision taken by the Government of the Union of the Comoros to restore its authority in Anjouan."
A standoff between the authorities on Anjouan and the other two islands, Grande Comore and Moheli, has lingered since individual island elections were held in June 2007.
The archipelago's complex electoral system provides for a semi-autonomous government and president for each of the islands - Anjouan, Grand Comore and Moheli - with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government.
Neither Anjouan's self-proclaimed president, Mohamed Bacar, nor the Comoros Union government, which is demanding a fresh poll, is prepared to back down.
The AU said it would send a military and security evaluation team as well as a planning team to Comoros to make final arrangements.
Increasing international involvement
France has offered to transport the AU troops to the Indian Ocean archipelago. "We confirm France's readiness to provide support to the Tanzanian and Senegalese troops for their transport to the Comoros, that is, to the island of Grande Comoro or Moheli, but not to Anjouan," Agence France-Presse quoted French foreign ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani as saying.
"We want to show our support to the AU and to its determination to preserve the integrity and unity of the Comoros." The former colonial power's involvement came after reports of increasing anti-French sentiment in the former colony, amid rumours of possible French support for Bacar.
"There have been some protests and slogans against France painted on walls - some people might be suspicious that France was supporting Bacar and many expected France at least to raise its voice against what is happening on Anjouan," Union government spokesman Abdourahime Said Bakar told IRIN.
After more than 130 years of colonial rule, independence from France in 1975 led to three decades of political instability marked by 19 successful and attempted coups in Comoros.
The notorious French mercenary, Bob Denard, who died recently, orchestrated four of the coups and played a prominent role in Comoran political struggles, ousting and replacing presidents over the years until his final attempt was thwarted by France in 1995.
The Union government has acquired two Ukrainian helicopters and crews to back up its planned military operation, because "we only have one helicopter pilot" according to Said Bakar. Hundreds of Union government troops have been assembling on Moheli, which is closer to Anjouan than the larger island Grand Comore, and the helicopters would transport troops and equipment and evacuate the wounded, he said.
The Union government will need all the help it can get: most experts acknowledge that Bacar's forces are better trained, better equipped and more numerous. Attempts by the Union government in 1997 and 2007 to establish control of the island by force failed.
In an earlier interview with IRIN, Mohamed Bacar dismissed the threat of armed Union forces landing on Anjouan. "[National president Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed] Sambi does not know anything concerning the military, but if I had to advise him I would say that it's not the solution. The first time  the army came we kicked them out. The second time [May 2007] the army came we kicked them out. That means that if they try to come a third time we will kick them out."
Earlier this week, the AU extended sanctions against Anjouan's leadership for the third time, but the Comoros Union government strongly rejected the move, claiming that sanctions - a maritime embargo and asset freeze - were having no impact on Bacar and were only prolonging the crisis.
The possibility of a new high-level mission, under the auspices of the AU, to try negotiating a peaceful resolution to the conflict prompted Said Bakar to reiterate the government's position to move in with the Union army and re-establish order on Anjouan.
"We know that his [Bacar's] answer will still be the same. Why give him more time?" The proposed AU mission would include representatives from Tanzania, South Africa, France and the United States (US), but it was still unclear as to when the delegation would arrive in Moroni, the national capital, situated on Grande Comore.
US engagement at this level was relatively new, Said Bakar commented. "Comoros has a strategic position in the Indian Ocean and in relation to the middle-east," and the US 'fight against terror' might also be a reason, but he welcomed the international support to help resolve the crisis.
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comoran national, is still wanted by the US for his role in the bombings of their Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in Kenya on 7 August 1998.
"We continue to search for this known criminal, and I would again like to call for your assistance in capturing this man, which has tarnished the international reputation of Comoros. Only when he is captured will Comoros be free from the dark shadow he has cast," the former US ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and the Union of Comoros said in his outgoing speech in 2005.
"But I want to make it very clear - the United States is going to be there to help the Comoros over the long run, even after we capture this terrorist."
On the run
While Union forces, international troops and Bacar loyalists manoeuvre themselves into position, Anjouan's population has been scattering, seeking refuge on neighbouring islands or leaving the island capital, Mutsamudu, to find safety in the hills and smaller villages.
The UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros, Opia Kumah, said a recent UN assessment, carried out in cooperation with the Comoros Red Crescent movement, confirmed movements from Anjouan to the other islands, but rumours of thousands moving to Moheli were an exaggeration and "there were a couple of hundred at most."
According to Said Bakar, over 2,500 Anjouanese had made their way to Grand Comore since the conflict flared in June 2007. The displaced people were mainly being taken in by relatives, but capacity to absorb them was wearing thin and leading to growing frustration.
Kumah said two factors were driving the displacement: the threat and violence associated with military action, and individuals thought to back the Union government being targeted by Bacar supporters. "There are rumours of human rights violations, of beatings, and even torture. Our biggest concern is the possibility of a humanitarian and human rights crisis."
Regardless of the military outcome, Kumah said, pro-Bacar and pro-Union sympathisers on Anjouan would be pitted against each other in the aftermath. "What we are afraid of is retaliation against the people who support Bacar. People might want to take revenge, but we want to take them to court. Bacar has committed high treason," Said Bakar remarked.
Besides the ongoing inter-island tension in the Union, there is also tension between the Union and the French territory of Mayotte. The Union of Comoros claims Mayotte - one of the four stars in the Comoran flag represents the island - and its claim is backed by the UN and the AU.
The archipelago's violent past has left Comorans heavily dependent on foreign aid and among the poorest people in Africa. In the view of Said Bakar, "This country should bury all its separatist ideas and allow Comorians to go into a stable and peaceful future." Many of the archipelago's people would probably agree with him.