samedi 14 mars 2009

Madagascar tensions mounts as rivals dig in heels

ANTANANARIVO (AFP) — Madagascar's opposition said Friday it was close to toppling a government which in turn called on its poverty-stricken population to protect the presidential palace.

Followers of President Marc Ravalomanana and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina took to the streets to press their campaigns after weeks of mounting tensions in which dozens of people have been killed.

The military on the vast Indian Ocean island remained on standby, vowing it would seek to maintain order without any political agenda.

In the capital, Antananarivo, some Ravalomanana supporters answered a call by a pro-government radio to "defend strategic sites such as ministries and the presidential palace."

An AFP reporter said some 500 pro-government demonstrators had gathered outside the presidential palace on the outskirts of Antananarivo.

On Thursday, hundreds of opposition supporters demonstrated outside Ravalomanana's office, but were held back by security forces.

Last month, the presidential guard opened fire on opposition protesters marching on one of Ravalomanana's offices, killing 28 and wounding some 200. The carnage drew international condemnation and caused deep dismay among the country's security establishment.
On Friday, some 2,000 protesters gathered at Antananarivo's May 13 square -- the centre of the opposition's street movement -- for a new rally in support of the 34-year-old Rajoelina's bid to unseat Ravalomanana.

"It has been poverty for seven years," said Roland Ratsiraka, who is a senior opposition official as well as the nephew of exiled former president and bitter Ravalomanana rival Didier Ratsiraka.

"The transitional government is going to change all that," added Ratsiraka, referring to the parallel administration Rajoelina set up last month as part of his strategy to destabilise the government.

Rajoelina, under UN protection since evading arrest last week, is demanding Ravalomanana's resignation and the formation of a full transitional government.
"The army is with us now. Ravalomanana is now packing his bags, and his ministers as well," said Augustin Andriamananoro, another opposition official.

On Tuesday, the army chief of staff issued an ultimatum giving the feuding politicians three days to resolve their differences or face a military takeover.
But in a surprise move, military leaders replaced General Edmond Rasolofomahandry with a colonel, Andre Andriarijaona, who took a tough stance against Ravalomanana.
"He should step aside because there is no point now in persisting," the new chief of staff Andre Andriarijaona said.

The military stepped in as the crisis plunged Madagascar and its 20 million population into deeper uncertainty.

"We are not here for a coup d'etat or to install a military administration. Politicians are the ones with the responsibility to solve the problems," Andriarijaona told AFP.

In a statement Friday, the president urged the army to "remain united and fulfil their duties by being neutral" after meeting with a members of a church council spearheading crisis talks.

"We reiterate the preconditions: stop all forms of terrorism, provocation, occupying of ministries and all arrests," said Odon Razanakolona, who heads the council.
Talks that were due Thursday between the rivals were postponed after Rajoelina said he would not attend.

Ravalomanana acknowledged this week he had made mistakes in a crisis which has left around 100 dead since the start of the year and remained open to negotiations.

Copyright © 2009 AFP.

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