Madagascar riots force rivals into talks

Madagascar’s political rivals entered talks on Monday after unrest that led to one reported killing, as mobs set fire to the state radio building and a TV station owned by the president.

The outspoken mayor at the centre of the unrest issued a radio appeal for “calm” later in the day, after tens of thousands protested in the capital in response to his call for a general strike.

“I call for calm,” Antananarivo Mayor Andry Rajoelina said on private station Radio Antsiva, adding that “a discussion is under way” with the government of President Marc Ravalomanana.

“The international community has called for discussions with the two protagonists. I am ready to do it, but only if we discuss the issues demanded by the people.”

The Indian Ocean island’s Prime Minister, Charles Rabemananjara, confirmed that talks “between the two protagonists” had begun via another radio broadcast.

Rabemananjara echoed the call for restraint, adding: “This is not the way to develop the country.”

Rioters had earlier raided Radio Nationale Malgache in the city centre, while two warehouses of Ravalomanana’s Tiko food processing company as well as his television station were also partially burned, witnesses and officials said.

Some rioters looted furniture, computers and files from the radio building before setting it ablaze and damaging vehicles parked nearby.

Supporters of the mayor also mounted roadblocks in a number of neighbourhoods.

The protester shot dead had been demonstrating in front of Ravalomanana’s private TV station, MBS, according to the city’s deputy mayor.

“On our side, we have one victim shot in the head during a gathering at the headquarters of a private television,” said Andriamahazo Nirhy-Lanto.

Nirhy-Lanto is a deputy of Rajoelina, who has labelled the president’s regime a dictatorship.

“The station was being guarded by mercenaries. They were aggressive and shot at the crowd,” he said.

The mounting tensions had forced Ravalomanana, who came to power after disputed elections in 2001, to cut short a trip to South Africa and return home on Sunday.

The mayor had earlier addressed the gathering of tens of thousands in a city square.

Rajoelina has ratcheted up opposition to the government since last month, when it shut down his television network, Viva, for broadcasting an interview with former president Didier Ratsiraka.

“Nowhere in the world has a military force ever succeeded in overcoming the force of the people,” Rajoelina, standing on the back of a truck, told the crowd.

“Power belongs to the people. They can seize it [but] the government is proving to be a dictatorship every passing hour,” said Rajoelina, nicknamed TGV, or high speed train, for his rapid-fire personality.

The mayor defied government warnings to hold a major rally on Saturday in the capital at which he addressed more than 20 000 and called for a general strike.

Ravalomanana, who had been due to attend a regional summit beginning on Monday in Pretoria, flew back on Sunday night and accused the mayor of calling for a revolt.

Several of Rajoelina’s supporters taunted the president as his motorcade left the airport and at least two vehicles had their windows broken.

Rajoelina (34) ran against Ravalomanana’s party as an independent candidate in municipal elections in 2007 and since taking office has grown into the regime’s most vocal opponent.

He has repeatedly condemned what he says are shrinking freedoms in Madagascar and also fiercely criticised a massive project to lease vast swathes of farmland to South Korean industrial giant Daewoo.

Madagascar has been dogged over the years by political turmoil. The run-up to the 2006 presidential elections won by Ravalomanana was fraught with unrest, including a series of grenade explosions rocking the capital.

Former colonial power France on Monday urged respect for “constitutional order” and democratic principles, while calling for dialogue between the parties.—Sapa-AFP



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