By Ahmed Ali Amir
MORONI (Reuters) - The Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Comoros said it had captured the capital and airport of the rebel island of Anjouan on Tuesday in a African Union-backed seaborne assault.
"Our troops have their feet on the ground ... The assault has started well and good," Mohamed Bacar Dossar, a presidential official in charge of defence, told Reuters.
Bacar said about 400 troops from the African Union (AU) and the Comoros army were taking part in "the first wave" of assaults on Anjouan, one of three islands in the coup-prone archipelago that won independence from France in 1975.
With 1,350 AU troops in support, the national government hopes to quickly topple Anjouan's local leader, French-trained former gendarme Mohamed Bacar, who clung to power in an illegal election last year and commands a militia of several hundred.
Analysts say the AU may be hoping to score a relatively easy victory in Anjouan -- whose population is just 300,000 --- to earn some international prestige to offset the struggles of its peacekeeping missions in Sudan and Somalia.
Comoros government spokesman Abdourahim Said Bacar said troops had already occupied the capital Mutsamudu and two other towns, Domoni and Ouani, after arriving by boat at dawn.
"The airport in the town of Ouani is already under control," he said. "Things seem to have started very smoothly."
There was no independent confirmation of the captures from Anjouan, where phone lines have been cut.
Neither the Anjouan leader nor his aides could be reached.
A government official said there was "a little resistance" in Mutsamudu where Bacar's militia were based.
"For the moment, I don't have the correct information about his whereabouts, but perhaps by the end of the day we will get some news on that," said the official, adding that Bacar would be tried for crimes against the people of Anjouan.
"Some of the soldiers have been given orders to look for him. We know that during these past months he didn't sleep in his home. He was afraid."
Anjouan inhabitants could hear gunfire and explosions, said Aboulatuf Mohamed, a former resident speaking to people there by satellite phone.
"The assault began at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT). In Domoni, the army has taken the town. The airport and the port have been taken also," said Mohamed, vice-president of a local human rights group.
After suffering some 20 coups or coup attempts since independence, the three-island Comoros is trying to shrug off a history of instability.
The central government accuses Bacar of secessionist aspirations, but he says he is fighting for more autonomy rather than independence.
Lying off Africa's east coast, the Comoros islands -- which grow vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang, a flower whose oils are used in aromatherapy -- were first settled by Arab seafarers 1,000 years ago, then later became a pirate haven.
The archipelago's total population is about 700,000.