Comoros gunfight leaves three dead

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Comoros security forces killed at least three gunmen in a shootout at a military base in the capital after renegade soldiers broke out of prison and the opposition announced a plan to unseat the president.

Shooting was for around an hour near the main military base in Moroni, hours after opposition presidential candidates announced a plan to unseat President Azali Assoumani. He was re-elected earlier this week in a vote they reject as fraudulent.

Interior Minister Mohamed Daoudou said a group of renegade soldiers jailed for plotting a coup last year escaped from prison and went to the army base to convince other troops to back them.

Their mastermind, Fayssoil Abdoussalam, an army major, was among three killed in the shootout, Daoudou said. Security and military sources earlier said four gunmen died.

“Fayssoil tried to rally troops to his cause but they didn’t join him,” Daoudou told reporters, adding the situation was under control.

The unrest prompted Washington to order all US government personnel out: “The Union of the Comoros is experiencing gunfire, political unrest and infrastructure disruptions. US Government personnel have been ordered to depart the country,” the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security said.

Assoumani was declared the winner in Sunday’s election with more than 60% of the vote, enough to avoid a second-round run-off. Observers from African monitoring missions said the election lacked credibility.

Hours before Thursday’s shooting, Assoumani’s 12 opponents in the election announced a body to remove him. Their National Transition Council would be chaired by former armed forces chief of staff Mohamed Soilihi.

“The mission of the National Transitional Council is to resolve the post-election crisis, to ensure a peaceful transition, to preserve peace, stability and national cohesion in our country,” said Soilihi in a statement broadcast on privately owned radio stations and social media platforms.

A diplomatic source said Soilihi was arrested after releasing the statement.

In Soilihi’s statement, the opposition candidates set an April 3 deadline for the vote to be invalidated. Otherwise they called for civil disobedience and a general strike from April 4.

Observers from the African Union, the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa and the African Standby Forces of the East said Sunday’s election was riddled with irregularities that led them to conclude it lacked credibility or transparency.

Assoumani said anyone wishing to contest the results should do so via legal means.

Authorities shut down local newspaper, La Gazette, for publishing a story about the proposed transition council.

Assoumani triggered months of protests last year by extending term limits, allowing him to stand for another consecutive term.

His decision particularly angered natives of the island of Anjouan who argue it is their turn to hold the presidency, traditionally rotated among leaders from the three main islands of the archipelago.

A former army officer who first came to power in a 1999 coup, Assoumani has been in and out of office, serving as president for 10 of the past 20 years. He won elections in 2002 and 2016.