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Bob Denard, at 78; fought communism as a mercenary

Coup leader and French mercenary Bob Denard (right), leading his Comorian counterpart Combo Ayouba in Moroni before French troops took control of the island of Comoros. Coup leader and French mercenary Bob Denard (right), leading his Comorian counterpart Combo Ayouba in Moroni before French troops took control of the island of Comoros. (ap file 1995)

PARIS - Bob Denard, a mercenary who staged coups, battled communism, and fought for French interests and his own across Africa for more than three decades, died Saturday near Paris, his sister said. He was 78.

Georgette Garnier declined to say how he died, but he had suffered from Alzheimer's disease and cardiovascular problems.

A fervent anti-Communist who had worked for several dictators and monarchs, Mr. Denard was among a group of postcolonial French mercenaries known as "les affreux" - the horrible ones. He said he had the backing of Paris, but was never given official support.

Mr. Denard was twice convicted in France for his role in an attempted coup in Marxist-controlled Benin in 1977, and a later short-lived coup in the Comoros Islands in 1995. He received suspended prison terms in each case.

Mr. Denard was perhaps best known for controlling the Comoros behind a figurehead leader for most of the 1980s following a coup he led in the country.

Bob Denard was one of about a dozen aliases that he assumed during his career. His real name was Gilbert Bourgeaud.

Mr. Denard was born in southwest France on Jan. 20, 1929, the son of a noncommissioned officer in the French colonial army. Garnier described him as a lifelong military man who was "adored by his men" - dozens of whom were former European soldiers.

After serving in the colonial army in French Indochina in the 1950s, Mr. Denard became a hired gun in 1961 when he moved to the Belgian Congo to help train government troops. From there, he took part in uprisings in Nigeria, Angola, and Rhodesia, the British colony that later became Zimbabwe.

Mr. Denard also served the Shah of Iran and trained royalist troops in Yemen. He said he worked with British intelligence there, and with the CIA in Angola, where he once led a group of mercenaries into the country by bicycle.

He was seriously injured at least four times - one of which, in Congo, left him with a limp for the rest of his life. Another time he was grazed by a bullet on his head in Angola, but remained undaunted, a biographer said.

"He believed in what he was doing," said Pierre Lunel, author of the 1992 biography "Bob Denard, Le Roi de Fortune" ("Bob Denard, King of Fortune").

"He did a job, and of course there were casualties," Lunel said. "It was a time that doesn't resemble today at all. The planet was split between two worlds: the communist world and free world in the West."

For years, Mr. Denard benefited from an interventionist French policy in its former colonies, and played on the Cold War chessboard, although he never received any official show of support.

A year after the failed Benin coup, Mr. Denard struck again - this time, successfully - with a putsch in the Comoros that brought in Ahmed Abdallah Abderrahmane as president. Mr. Denard, as leader of the national guard, held true power in the country until Abdallah was shot and killed in a dispute with Mr. Denard's men in November 1989.

In May 1999, Mr. Denard was acquitted of Abdallah's assassination in a French court. "I was a soldier. I was never a killer," a teary-eyed Mr. Denard told the court.

While in the Comoros, Mr. Denard said that he converted to Islam, the islands' predominant religion, and lived lavishly. He built a luxurious farm of 1,800 acres and married a Comoran hotel receptionist as his sixth and last wife. He had eight children in all.

Following Abdallah's death, the French military sent 3,000 men to seize control from Mr. Denard and his men. He fled to South Africa, where he lived for three years.

Mr. Denard was convicted in 1993 for the failed Benin coup, and settled with his family in France. He was believed to have put his adventures behind him.

But two years later, he and about 30 French mercenaries stormed ashore in the Comoros again to overthrow President Said Djohar after an overnight raid. A week later, French troops, acting in the name of a bilateral defense accord between France and the Comoros, freed Djohar and took the mercenaries captive. A Paris court convicted Mr. Denard for that coup last year.

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