/ 10 March 2009

UN guards Madagascar opposition leader

The United Nations is guarding Madagascar’s opposition leader and the country’s defence minister quit on Tuesday after just a month in the job in a political crisis gripping the Indian Ocean island.

At least some of the Malagasy military have mutinied in recent days, angry at a crackdown by President Marc Ravalomanana’s government on opposition demonstrations led by their leader Andry Rajoelina.

Flanked by soldiers, Defence Minister Mamy Ranaivoniarivo read his resignation letter to reporters in his office in the capital Antananarivo. Hours earlier, a colonel behind the mutiny said dissenting soldiers were in control of the building.

Ranaivoniarivo suggested he was under pressure.

”Perhaps I resigned under threat. I do not like it that Malagasy people are killing each other,” Ranaivoniarivo told Reuters by telephone later, adding that resignation was ”the best solution to my mind”.

His predecessor quit last month after the presidential guard shot dead 28 anti-government protesters and wounded scores.

Rajoelina — a former mayor of the capital whose demonstrations have triggered the country’s worst unrest for years killing about 135 people and hammering its $390-million tourism sector — has not been seen in public since Friday.

Diplomatic protection
UN mediator Drame Tiebile said late on Monday that the UN had placed the opposition leader under its protection at a diplomatic residence. Local media said Rajoelina had been staying at the French ambassador’s home.

Tiebile, Mali’s former foreign minister, said he had been assured by Ravalomanana that his rival would not be arrested.

Rajoelina, a 34-year-old one-time disc jockey, has galvanised widespread anger over the president’s failure to alleviate poverty. He has repeatedly called on Ravalomanana to resign, saying he no longer controls the capital or provinces.

The government calls him a maverick troublemaker and accuses him of whipping up public discontent with exaggerated claims.

Church leaders who have been trying to negotiate between the two men are planning three days of talks beginning on Thursday.

Ravalomanana, a 59-year-old self-made millionaire who denies running a dictatorship, has said he will attend.

An aide to Rajoelina would not say if he would be there, saying the opposition leader had yet to be officially informed. — Reuters