Dog of War: Bob Denard dies

Bob Denard, who has died aged 78, was France's best-known mercenary.
When African colonies achieved independence in the 1960s, he became a soldier for hire and played a part in wars and coups across the continent for almost 40 years.

Denard was born Gilbert Bourgeaud in the south-western city of Bordeaux in 1929.

He served in the French forces in Indochina until 1952, before joining the police in Morocco.

In 1954, he was convicted of an assassination plot against Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France and served 14 months in jail.

After a stint in France, Denard returned to Africa in the early 1960s.

He fought for the secessionist movement in the Katanga region of Congo in 1960-3. He would return to what is now DR Congo to fight against leftist rebels, and then for secessionists again.

Over the years he saw action in many countries, including the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nigeria, Benin, and Angola - as well as in Iran and Yemen.

'Pirate of the republic'

But Denard is best-known for his interventions in the Comoros Islands, where he took part in no fewer than four coups or coup attempts between 1975 and 1995.

He also lived there for a decade and served as head of the presidential guard, after converting to Islam.

His relationship with the French government have always been shrouded in mystery.

He described himself as a "pirate of the republic", and it is widely assumed that some of his adventures had the tacit approval of the authorities, who were anxious to maintain French influence in Africa.

The suspicion that he was regarded with leniency in his home country grew stronger in 1993 when a five-year French prison sentence over a failed 1977 coup attempt in Benin was reduced to a suspended sentence.

His final French conviction - for a 1995 coup attempt in the Comoros - also earned him a suspended sentence.

This was later increased by an appeal court to a year in jail with three suspended - but he never served it because of ill health.

In 1999, Denard - then 70 - was tried in connection with the assassination of Comoran President Ahmed Abdallah 10 years earlier. He was cleared.

During a trial on appeal in 2006, a former head of the foreign intelligence service said: "When special services are unable to undertake certain kinds of undercover operation, they use parallel structures. This was the case of Bob Denard."

Legal trouble

But by the 1990s, France - at least officially - supported democracy, rather than dubious clients, in Africa.

The French became more reluctant to intervene militarily - especially after its operation in Rwanda in 1994, which cynics said provided an escape route for those involved in the genocide.

This meant that Paris no longer routinely hired mercenaries to do its dirty work.

In retrospect, the mercenaries' glory days came to an end in 1995, when French troops quashed Bob Denard's final coup attempt in the Comoros.

According to British writer Adam Roberts - who wrote a book on mercenaries - French officials "certainly didn't disapprove of what he was doing early on - his later trials came probably because they had stopped approving it".

Married seven times and a father of eight, Denard spent his later years between his home in southern France and courtrooms in Paris.

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