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FILE PHOTO: Comoros President Azali Assoumani addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

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By Ali Amir Ahmed

MORONI (Reuters) - Comoros President Azali Assoumani has won a referendum to extend presidential term limits and end a system of rotating power among the archipelago's three main islands by an overwhelming majority, he said late on Wednesday.

The yes vote allows Assoumani to run for two more five year-terms starting with an early election next year, rather than being required to step down when his present term ends in 2021.

He has argued the system of rotating power makes it difficult to set long-term priorities to govern the country.

The opposition has dismissed the July 30 referendum as illegal and accused Assoumani of flouting the constitution. He suspended the constitutional court, and the opposition says a referendum would be illegal until the court is restored.

The present constitution requires the presidency to rotate every five years among candidates from the country's three main islands, an arrangement intended to promote stability and power-sharing in a country that has had more than 20 coups or coup attempts since it declared independence from France in 1975.

Speaking on national television from the presidential palace, Assoumani said figures from the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), showed that 92.74 percent of voters picked "Yes" to change the constitution, while 7.26 percent chose "No".

Some 192,444 voters had cast their ballots in the referendum, out of a total 301,006 eligible voters, putting the turnout rate at 63.9 percent, Assoumani said.

Opposition parties and civil society organisations grouped under the Peace in the Comoros umbrella group disputed the figures, saying many voters had boycotted the poll. The group also said many had voted "No" but their vote was suppressed by the government.

They cited "unofficial sources" and journalists as the basis for their claims.

The group said it had noted "with satisfaction" its campaign to actively boycott the referendum had been "heard by the people". It called for a "complete and indisputable rejection" of the new constitutional draft.

The African Union has called for all to respect the constitution and urged parties to engage in dialogue immediately.

Assoumani, a former military officer, first seized power in a coup in 1999. He served an elected term as president from 2002-2006, and was re-elected in 2016.

He joins a string of African leaders in countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Cameroon, to extend presidential term limits or amend the constitution in order to remain in power.

(Writing by Cecilie Kallestrup; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

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