mardi 17 février 2009

Madagascar troops, opposition in standoff

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) — Anti-government protesters and security forces were in a standoff Monday in Madagascar's capital after an opposition leader vowed to put his own government in place.

Security forces patrolled near government offices, some government workers were sent home for safety reasons and negotiations were under way to try to prevent violence at the central square in Antananarivo.

Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina accuses President Marc Ravalomanana of misspending funds and says the president is responsible for the Feb. 7 deaths of at least 25 civilians killed by police fire.

About 3,000 protesters gathered Monday at the square to march to government offices, but security forces prevented them from leaving. Rajoelina had vowed that his supporters would hold sit-ins outside government buildings Monday and not leave "until our ministers take possession of the offices."
This island nation of 20 million people off the southern coast of Africa has been rocked by intense political turmoil this year. On Feb. 7, police fired at opposition supporters marching toward the presidential palace, killing at least 25 people. In late January, opposition protests sparked riots and looting that left dozens dead.
Within days of the Feb. 7 shootings, Madagascar's defense minister had resigned and the president replaced the army chief, signs of cracks in the president's support base. But it's far from clear that Rajoelina has the power to force out Ravalomanana.
The two camps began talks last week mediated by religious leaders and diplomats who have urged them to call off demonstrations.

Rajoelina, whose background is in advertising and broadcasting, has shown a genius for articulating grievances in this largely poor country. Ravalomanana sees the opposition leader as a front man for more established figures in a nation known for its political infighting.

The country's council of Catholic bishops said last week that provocations and threats continued to be heard, particularly on radio and TV — both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana have their own broadcast stations.

"Mediation efforts are blocked and we fear civil war," the bishops said Friday.
The African Union expressed concern about the possibility of violence Monday, and AU chief Jean Ping urged "all concerned to refrain from any action" that could undermine the negotiations.

Located in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is known for its rare wildlife and eco-tourism, but it also is one of Africa's poorest nations. More than half the population lives on less than $1 per day.

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