Madagascar president blames rival for deadly unrest

At least 68 people died in a wave of rioting in Madagascar this week, a police official said on Wednesday, as President Marc Ravalomanana accused his main rival of stoking political unrest.

A French government official, however, said more than 80 people had died on the former French colony in just a few days amid a bitter war of words between Ravalomanana and the capital’s mayor, Andry Rajoelina.

The senior Madagascan police official said most of the deaths took place on Monday and early Tuesday, and that local authorities had ordered curfews in several regions.

“Tonight [Wednesday] the situation is calm in the country,” the official said.

At least 42 people died in the capital, Antananarivo, including 30 rioters who were crushed by a ceiling that collapsed in a supermarket fire, he said.

In Toliara, on the south-western coast, 16 people died, while 10 other deaths were reported in other areas of the country, the official said.

But French Secretary of State for Cooperation Alain Joyandet, warning that the situation was “very worrisome”, said more than 80 people had died in recent days. At least 34 people had previously been reported killed.

“There are 20 000 French nationals there, so we are watching the situation attentively, hour by hour,” he said.

Rajoelina, who called for the protests that turned violent on Monday, planned a fresh gathering for this weekend at a city park where he also held a huge rally last Saturday.

He demanded that the government punish those behind the shooting of one of his supporters during the demonstrations.

“I am issuing an ultimatum to the government to sentence to hard labour whoever gave the order and whoever executed [the supporter] by tomorrow [Thursday],” Rajoelina told a crowd that turned out for the funeral of the slain teenager.

The teenager was shot in the head by guards in front of Ravalomanana’s private TV station, MBS, which along with the state radio building had been besieged by an angry mob.

“Tomorrow, in a sign of solidarity with the family and as we wait for the government’s response, we will make Antananarivo a dead city. No school; work and shops will be shut.

“But on Saturday, we will all be here at Place du 13 Mai,” he added, referring to the city plaza.

The 34-year-old mayor, who portrays Ravalomanana as a dictator, had announced a temporary suspension of the protests on Tuesday.

His deputy, Andriamahazo Nirhy-Lanto, said: “We stopped yesterday [Tuesday] to honour those who died in the demonstrations as well as to ensure that there is order.”

Ravalomanana, himself a former Antananarivo mayor, blamed Rajoelina for the violence.

“It was him, the leader, the initiator of these disturbances,” Ravalomanana said as he visited the state radio building. “The priority for me now is to restore all that was destroyed.”

Ravalomanana was forced to rush back home on Sunday and miss a regional summit in South Africa as he sought to quell his biggest threat and Madagascar’s worst political unrest since his 2006 re-election.

He said he had opted not to call in the army as that would only have led to further bloodshed.

“It was me who ordered the army not to intervene. The situation must be properly managed otherwise it would have been a bloodbath.”

Ravalomanana (59), who first came to power after disputed elections in 2001, has called for national unity and talks with his younger rival.

The deputy mayor said there had been no talks between the two rivals before adding that Ravalomanana had been nationally “discredited.”

The tussle between Rajoelina and the president worsened with last month’s closure of the mayor’s television network for broadcasting an interview with former president Didier Ratsiraka.

Rajoelina became mayor after defeating Ravalomanana’s party as an independent candidate in municipal elections in 2007.

He has since become an outspoken opponent of the president, condemning what he says are shrinking freedoms on the island.

Madagascar suffered some of its worst political violence after the 2001 presidential elections when then-president Ratsiraka refused to accept defeat by Ravalomanana.

The impasse split the island in two — with two capitals, two governments, and a divided army — until Ravalomanana was officially proclaimed president in May 2002. — AFP

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