/ 9 March 2009

Madagascar threatens action against mutinying soldiers

Madagascar’s government said on Monday it would take action against soldiers whose mutiny has deepened the political crisis in the Indian Ocean island.

Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, whose protests against President Marc Ravalomanana have brought weeks of unrest which has killed about 135 people and hammered the $390-million tourism sector — remained in hiding for a third day.

Defence Minister Mamy Ranaivoniarivo did not specify what action might be taken against at least 30 dissident soldiers at an army camp outside the capital Antananarivo.

”It will be necessary to take military measures within the army,” he said in a statement.

”At the heart of the current crisis is a political problem. This needs a political solution. The military should not be manipulated and divided by this crisis.”

The soldiers, who had set up defences against a rumoured attack by the presidential guard outside their camp, said on Sunday they were among a larger group who were rebelling.

About 600 military personnel in total are based at Camp Capsat, which has so far remained peaceful. It was unclear if just one group or all of them were mutinying.

The dissidents said they would no longer take orders from their officers, complaining that the killing of innocent civilian protesters was unacceptable.

The crisis since the start of 2009 has rocked the world’s fourth largest island, which was counting on tourism and foreign investment in exploration of its vast oil and mineral reserves to drive economic growth.

Many Malagasy, however, say the benefits of growth under Ravalomanana have not trickled down to them and Rajoelina, a 34-year-old former disc jockey turned firebrand politician, has tapped into that frustration.

Ravalomanana, a 59-year-old dairy tycoon, calls Rajoelina a troublemaker. The opposition leader left his house three days ago, fearing action against him.

His movement called for another anti-government demonstration on Monday in the city’s central May 13 Plaza.

By mid-morning, several hundred people had gathered in the square — the epicentre for previous popular revolts since Madagascar won its independence from France in 1972 — with no visible sign of security forces.

Analysts say the stance of Madagascar’s military, which has generally stayed neutral during previous political crises, will be pivotal to the final outcome of the tussle.

The presidential guard was criticised last month for opening fire and killing 28 protestors marching on a presidential palace.

In February, an army general said the armed forces were ”ready to fulfil their duties” if the crisis was not resolved. – Reuters