By Jamey Keaten
Bob Denard, a colorful and well-known French mercenary who staged coups, battled communism, and fought for French interests and his own across postcolonial Africa and elsewhere for over three decades, has died, his sister said yesterday. He was 78.
Denard died Saturday in the Paris area, his sister, Georgette Garnier, said by phone. She declined to specify where he died or the cause of death. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and was known to have had cardiovascular problems.
Denard was perhaps best known for controlling the impoverished Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros Islands behind a figurehead leader for most of the 1980s, following a coup he led.
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 Comoros in 1995. He received suspended prison terms in each case.
A fervent anti-communist who worked for several dictators and monarchs, Denard was among the postcolonial French mercenaries known as "les affreux" — the horrible ones. He claimed the backing of Paris, but as a man of the shadows was never given official support.
Denard was born in southwest France in 1929, the son of a noncommissioned officer in the French colonial army. His real name was Gilbert Bourgeaud, and Bob Denard was one of about a dozen aliases that he assumed.
Garnier described Denard as a "very obliging" man "who liked to joke," and a military man who was "adored by his men" — dozens of whom were former European soldiers.
In the 1950s, Denard served in France's colonial army in French Indochina, and aided Morocco's police force before the kingdom gained independence from France. A later stint in business left him restless.
His career as a hired gun began in 1961, when he moved to the Belgian Congo which was recruiting experienced soldiers to help train government troops. From there, he sold his skills for uprisings in Nigeria, Angola and Zimbabwe, when it was white-ruled Rhodesia.
Denard served the Shah of Iran. He trained royalist troops in Yemen. He claimed he worked with British intelligence there, and with the CIA in Angola — where he once led mercenaries in by bicycle.
He suffered at least four serious injuries — 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," said Lunel. "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, Denard benefited from an interventionist French policy in its former colonies, and played on the Cold War chessboard — though he never got any official show of support.
A year after the failed Benin coup, Denard struck again — this time, successfully — with a putsch in Comoros that brought in Ahmed Abdallah Abderrahmane as president. Denard, as leader of the national guard, held true power until Abdallah was shot and killed in a dispute with Denard's men in November 1989.
While there, Denard claimed to have 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.
After several weeks of turmoil, the French military sent in 3,000 men to seize control from Denard and his men. He fled to South Africa, where he lived for three years.
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 Comoros to overthrow President Said Djohar after an overnight raid.
A week later, French troops, acting in the name of a bilateral defence accord between France and Comoros, liberated Djohar and took the mercenaries captive. A Paris court convicted him for that coup last year.