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DateLine Sunday, 19 August 2007

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Smell of success eludes Indian Ocean spice island

PATSY, Comoros, Aug 15 (Reuters) At the end of a stony track, watched by soldiers with automatic weapons, the self-appointed leader of a tiny Indian Ocean island is giving a an Independence Day speech.

Seated in the shade of the presidential palace decked with tinsel and flashing decorations, his audience includes soldiers and civilians - their faces ghostly white with sun block - all clapping and squealing with laughter at his words commemorating the independence from France of the island of Anjouan.

"When you have power in Comoros, you are popular," said a senior official on Anjouan, one of three islands in the Comoros archipelago. He did not want his name to be used. "People are hungry," he added.

Anjouan's leader, Mohamed Bacar, seized power in a putsch in 2001 and has survived two more coup attempts since. Now he rejects democratic elections in defiance of the central government, intensifying Comoros' latest political crisis.

"He's got guns, so he can do what he wants," Ahmed, 27, told Reuters near the thick stone walls of an 18th-century citadel which once defended the old port of Mutsamudu from Malagasy pirates.

With a history of coups, assassinations and mercenary invasions since independence in 1975, the islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli have been notorious for political instability and inter-island bickering.Suspicions still linger among the islands, whose different histories and cultures hint at their historical links to Zanzibar, Arabia, Persia and Madagascar.

Comoros has come a long way since independence. Since introducing its 2002 constitution, the tropical archipelago has had no coups and last year's presidential election was the country's first peaceful transition of power since 1975.

France, the former colonial power, backed the early coups but now supports African Union mediation. And Bob Denard, the French mercenary involved in four of Comoros' coups, is now suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

However, the islands still face plenty of challenges.

TROPICAL TREASURE

Anjouan, for example, is under strain from a ballooning population and lack of jobs. The hilly, wooded island exports cloves and about two-thirds of the world's ylang-ylang, an essential oil used in perfumes, soap, and aromatherapy. However, speculation and oversupply have caused the collapse of prices for another export, vanilla.

Sweet aromas waft through the fragrant island, which also produces ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and a striking variety of herbs and vegetables.

"Practically all the medicinal plants that you find in East Africa can be found in the Comoros, especially Anjouan," Halidi Ahmed, a forestry expert from Anjouan, told Reuters. While other Indian Ocean islands may be reaping the benefits of oil and minerals, tourism, or even fishing, Anjouan has yet to enjoy such opportunities.

"We're surrounded by the sea, and what is there?" said Aboulatuf Mohamed, a resident, noting empty hotels and fishermen still using dug-out canoes."I don't see a future for my children, or even me," he told Reuters.By day, Anjouan's capital Mutsamudu is a scruffy mixture of potholed roads and decaying or incomplete buildings.

Cattle munch on piles of rubbish strewn on the stony beach.Unemployment and late payment of salaries are standard, although not confined to Anjouan. Near the mosque, dozens of men sit under leafy breadfruit trees, while hawkers sell DVDs and toothpaste.

"You get up in the morning and where are you going to go?" a teacher said. Anjouan may be growing poorer but its proximity to the east coast of Africa and major shipping routes could make the 374 sq km (145 sq mile) island a convenient centre for smuggling and other illegal activities, diplomats say.

The Anjouan government Web site says its strategic location and deep water harbour at Mutsamudu enables large container ships and cargo vessels to dock, making it attractive for potential investors. Money laundering is another concern.

The U.S. State Department reported in March that Anjouan's offshore finance authority had licensed about 300 offshore banks, many of which appear to be shell organisations.

"Offshore is one of the things we are trying to look at," Mohamed Bacar told Reuters in a brief interview. "How it could be used to benefit the Anjouanais." The islanders' routine may not be lucrative, but it is less dangerous than crossing in a small boat to Mayotte - the fourth island in the Comoros - which is governed by France.

Anjouan residents say hundreds of Comorians die every year trying to reach the more prosperous island. "It's a corridor of death," a resident said. "Mayotte is El Dorado."

 

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