Security forces in the Comoros have intensified their crackdown against anti-government protesters on the island of Anjouan, with witnesses reporting heavy gunfire and residents fleeing amid a wave of unrest against constitutional changes.
President Azali Assoumani on Thursday sent in reinforcements to quell a nascent uprising on the opposition stronghold as clashes continued for a fourth day between security forces and armed protesters.
Residents of the island are angry at Assoumani’s plans to extend term limits and end rotation of the presidency between the country’s three main islands after one term, a move that disadvantages Anjouan which was next in line.
An official at Anjoun’s airport told the AFP news agency a significant contingent of security forces arrived on the island to quell unrest there.
Residents said the old medina quarter of Anjouan’s capital Mutsumudu, with its narrow, intersecting alleyways, has become the epicentre of the fighting.
“Those who were able to fled the old town to seek refuge in the outer suburbs… which are a safe haven,” said one witness who declined to be named.
French expatriate Anais Greusard told AFP that there were “big explosions” late on Wednesday and “a lot of shooting” in the early hours of Thursday.
Authorities also cut off water and power supplies in Mutsumudu, residents said.
“They have cut water and electricity. [But] the hooded protesters are not the ones suffering, it is the population which have been taken like hostages,” a resident of Mutsumudu told Reuters.
“If this continues, we risk starving to death. We are praying that it ends quickly,” added the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
‘People are revolting’
Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou said on Wednesday that the situation was back to normal in Anjouan after three people were killed in the violence. Witnesses claimed that many more people had been injured in the clashes
He blamed “terrorists, as well as drug addicts and alcoholics” for the unrest.
“The people are revolting… they won’t stop shooting,” said Ahmed Samir, an exiled leader of the opposition Union for the Development of the Comoros (UPDC) party who added that the people wanted to oust Assoumani.
Samir claimed that around 40 armed men were leading an armed insurrection against government forces while witnesses described masked men with automatic weapons roaming the medina.
A night-time curfew remained in place on the island.
The United Nations and African Union has called for stalled talks between rival parties to resume.
In August, Assoumani – from the largest island, Grande Comore – said a July referendum had approved the extension of presidential term limits and an end to the rotating presidency. The opposition called the referendum illegal.
Assoumani plans to compete in presidential polls in early 2019. That would deny Anjouan its turn to occupy the presidency from 2021, as would have happened under the previous system that rotated the post among the country’s three main islands.
Assoumani has been in power since 2016 and would have had to step down in 2021 under the old term limits.
The former military official joins a string of leaders in African countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Cameroon who have extended presidential term limits or otherwise amended the constitution to remain in power.