Military rule looms in Madagascar after ultimatum

Madagascar’s army chief warned on Tuesday his troops would take control of the Indian Ocean island if political leaders failed to resolve a worsening crisis within 72 hours.

Chief of staff Edmond Rasolofomahandry called on political groups and leaders across Madagascan society, as well as foreign envoys, to work for a solution to the political crisis that has roiled the island state off Africa’s east coast for more than three months.

The United States State Department, meanwhile, said it was allowing non-essential staff to leave its embassy in Madagascar as it issued a new travel warning over “escalating civil unrest” which has now forced the defence minister to quit.

Rasolofomahandry said his forces “promised not to take sides,” but was ready to step in, failing a breakthrough.

“If a solution is not found after the 72 hours, then we, the armed forces, we will take responsibility for running national affairs and protect the national interest and unity.”

The army flexed its muscles hours earlier by forcing the resignation of Defence Minister Mamy Ranaivoniarivo. A military committee had demanded he step down for ordering soldiers to put down anti-government protests, accusing him of “violence against the population”.

Army officers have increasingly expressed frustration at the government’s use of troops to supress the protests, led by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina.

At the weekend, soldiers at a key army base near the capital warned they would refuse any further orders to act against the almost daily demonstrations, but denied their decision amounted to munity.

More than 100 people have been killed, the vast majority at the hands of the security forces, in a wave of opposition protests against the rule of President Marc Ravalomanana since the start of the year.

Ravalomanana admitted on Tuesday he had made mistakes over the country’s worsening political crisis.

“This political crisis has to stop. I am ready to listen. I am human and I made mistakes,” he said in an address on state television.

Ravalomanana said a two-day national conference to be held from Thursday would work to “find a solution to the crisis”.

Meanwhile, hundreds of pro-government demonstrators massed outside the French embassy in Antananarivo after France said it was sheltering fugitive opposition leader Rajoelina.

The crowd demanded French embassy officials hand over Rajoelina, whom France said it had taken into protection on Friday at the request of the United Nations.

“United Nations/France: Give us TGV,” read a placard, referring to Rajoelina’s nickname.

Rajoelina left the embassy compound shortly after security forces dispersed the crowd, an AFP correspondent reported.

The opposition leader has been in hiding since security forces tried to arrest him and searched his private TV and radio network last week.

“He has been at the French residence since Friday night, following a request from the international community and the UN mediator,” a French diplomat said, adding that the move had been agreed with Ravalomanana.

The UN envoy to Madagascar said on Monday that Rajoelina was offered protection as part of measures to resolve the political turmoil.

In a further sign of the diplomatic fallout from the crisis, the State Department said it had “authorised the departure of non-emergency personnel and family members” at the US embassy in Antananarivo.

Updating an earlier travel warning, the State Department also recommended US citizens to defer “all but essential travel to Madagascar because of escalating civil unrest”.

Talks to resolve the crisis have stuttered and Rajoelina walked out of negotiations with Ravalomanana last month, saying the president was not taking opposition concerns seriously.

Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries and Rajoelina’s criticism of the regime’s economic and social policies has struck a chord with large portions of the population.

Rajoelina accuses his rival of running a dictatorship while his people starve.

The 34-year-old opposition chief was sacked earlier this year as the mayor of Antananarivo for spearheading the protests. — AFP

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