Madagascar opposition calls for president’s arrest – By Richard Lough and Alain Iloniaina (Reuters)

March 16th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) – Madagascar’s opposition leader Andry Rajoelina called on Monday for security forces to arrest President Marc Ravalomanana, saying he was impatient to take power in the Indian Ocean island. (more…)

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) – Madagascar’s opposition leader Andry Rajoelina called on Monday for security forces to arrest President Marc Ravalomanana, saying he was impatient to take power in the Indian Ocean island.

Despite growing pressure to resign over the crisis that has killed at least 135 people and crippled the economy, the elected president says he will only step down democratically and has offered a referendum on whether he should stay.

The army, which has leaned away from the president but not definitively allied with Rajoelina, said a referendum would take too long and risked chaos in the meantime. The security forces were due to hold a news conference later on Monday.

“I ask the army and police and all those who can to carry out the minister of justice’s demand, because Andry Rajoelina is impatient to get into office,” he told a rally in the capital.

Christine Razanamahasoa, appointed minister of justice in Rajoelina’s parallel administration, earlier told the rally she was ordering prosecutors to arrest the president.

Both the army and military police were surprised by the call. The new army chief of staff said arrests were a matter for the police. The head of the military police said it could not act as there was no arrest warrant.

The African Union condemned what it called an attempted coup by the opposition and urged the people of Madagascar to respect the country’s constitution.

“The situation in Madagascar is an internal conflict. It is an attempted coup d’etat. We condemn the attempted coup d’etat,” Edouard Alo-Glele, Benin’s envoy to Ethiopia, said after an emergency meeting of the AU’s Peace and Security Council.

Rajoelina, 34, a former disc jockey who was sacked as Antananarivo’s mayor last month, says Ravalomanana is an autocrat running the island like a private company.

The president’s supporters call Rajoelina a troublemaker bent on seizing power illegally.

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While Rajoelina has tapped into widespread public discontent, especially with high levels of poverty, many inhabitants are fed up with the unrest.

The $390 million-a-year tourism sector is nosediving, and foreign investors in the important mining and oil exploration sectors are watching events nervously.

Raising tensions in the crisis, explosions were heard before dawn near the presidential palace. Witnesses and officials spoke of several blasts about a mile from the palace.

There was no indication they were an attack on Ravalomanana, who is hunkered down in the whitewashed colonial-era chateau, with supporters outside vowing to repel any opposition assault.

A presidential guard colonel told Reuters three shells were fired, landing on a bypass near the palace.

“This was to intimidate the mass of supporters,” he said.

A spokesman for the army, which has remained neutral during periods of political volatility since independence from France in 1960, said it had nothing to do with the pre-dawn blasts.

The United Nations has sent Tiebile Drame, Mali’s former foreign minister, to mediate.

“Madagascar has to turn its back on the cycle of violence,” he told Reuters. “The only possible way of reaching a solution is through dialogue and democracy.”

One analyst said the president’s plebiscite offer was a politically astute move designed to buy time.

“The president is backed into a corner and needs the crisis to dissipate. He could delay the referendum for months and the situation might have changed. So I see it as a delaying tactic,” said Edward George of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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