The Comoros government has expressed "disappointment" with South African President Thabo Mbeki's reported opposition to a military solution to end the standoff between the authorities on Anjouan and the other two islands in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
The crisis has been simmering since June 2007, when national elections were held. The Union government and the African Union (AU) postponed the poll on Anjouan, citing irregularities and intimidation in the run-up to voting, but Anjouan strongman Mohamed Bacar printed his own ballot papers, held an election and claimed a landslide victory.
The electoral crisis has paralysed the Union government of Comoros and brought back the political volatility that has been a hallmark of governance since the islands achieved independence from France in 1975; the tiny archipelago has weathered 19 successful and attempted coups to date.
A 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.
Mbeki reportedly told an international news agency on 12 March that Bacar had informed him in a letter he was ready to hold fresh elections as early as May this year.
"I think that this is really the way that we should go. I don't think there is any need to do anything apart or additional to that," Mbeki told the news agency at the end of an official visit to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
In response to Mbeki's remarks, Abdourahime Said Bakar, the Union government spokesman and Minister of Education, told IRIN: "We are a bit disappointed, since the AU has decided that there is no alternative but a military solution and South Africa has now decided to retreat."
Military solution inevitable
Bakar said there was international consensus that Mohamed Bacar was a rebel, so "how can you now say we can sit and talk with him ... A few weeks ago he was offered a way out [during a meeting with international negotiators], and he refused. We will restore the authority of the Union government in Anjouan and then sit and talk after elections."
He said 3,000 people had fled the island since Mohamed Bacar instituted his "dictatorship", and there were reports of torture and the rape of both men and women on the island. Bakar also claimed that about 20 of Mohamed Bacar's French-trained paramilitary gendarmes had recently defected to the Union government forces, providing valuable intelligence.
During a recent visit to Anjouan, Mohamed Bacar told an IRIN reporter: "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."
Bacar, who came to power in a 2001 coup, leads a well-armed force of gendarmes thought to number about 500 - a similar number to the Union government forces - and it has been widely accepted that any military solution to the crisis would require outside assistance.
The AU has sanctioned military force to remove Bacar and a pan-african military force of about 2,000 soldiers comprising troops from the Comoros, Tanzania, Sudan and Senegal, with logistical support from Libya, has been gathering on Moheli, the island nearest Anjouan, for the expected sea and airborne assault.
The United States has also offered logistical and intelligence support.
The UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros, Opia Kumah, told IRIN that the UN, which operates in the Comoros on a development mission, had been "beefing-up" its operations since February 2008.
Specialists from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have been brought in to facilitate humanitarian operations in the wake of any military action, as well as personnel from the World Food Programme, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the World Health Organisation.
Kumah said the UN agencies were preparing for both internal and intra-island displacement of people, and tents, medicines, and supplies of food, water and sanitation equipment had been sourced.