Ravalomanana concedes to referendum

Embattled Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana said on Sunday he would submit to a ”referendum” to settle a deadly stand-off which has riven the Indian Ocean island for months.

”I remain in power. I have no fear of a referendum if necessary,” Ravalomanana told 5 000 supporters gathered outside the presidential palace, moments after telling reporters he would ”never” bow to calls to quit office.

Ravalomanana was accompanied by a plain-clothes armed guard — while his rival Andry Rajoelina, guarded by troops, led prayers at a separate religious service in the centre of Antananarivo attended by 3 000 of his backers.

At the latter service, Rajoelina’s acolytes, dressed all in white, prayed for an ”end to the darkness” and a ”return of light”.

”What we want to put in place, we will only express today through prayers,” said 34-year-old Rajoelina.

Rajoelina has promised fresh elections to decide who should run the poverty-stricken country of about 20-million people.

While Ravalomanana’s concession marked a first major shift in his position, he gave no details as to what type of poll he could agree to stage. Talks between the two sides ground to a standstill weeks ago.

The strain on the head of state caused by weeks of psychological and media warfare rose another notch on Saturday after Madagascar’s opposition claimed to have toppled the government and taken control of the army.

Rajoelina called on Ravalomanana to ”humbly leave power in the next four hours”, but as Saturday’s deadline expired, the president — whose term was due to run until 2011 — accused Rajoelina of mounting ”a street protest which uses terror and repression to survive”.

An ex-DJ and former mayor of the capital who is under UN protection since evading arrest last week, Rajoelina set up a parallel administration last month as part of his strategy to destabilise the government.

The head of that parallel cabinet, Roindefo Zafitsimivalo Monja, occupied the official prime minister’s office on Saturday after the opposition took control of the building, accompanied by around 30 soldiers.

”The army no longer takes its orders from the president of the republic,” Rajoelina later said. ”It is I who commands the army today. They receive orders from Andry Rajoelina, and not only in Antananarivo, but throughout Madagascar.”

Asked his intentions by the press as he emerged to greet supporters at an open-air religious service Sunday, Ravalomanana said of Rajoelina’s demand that he relinquish power voluntarily: ”That, never!”

The army said on Saturday it would not intervene in the tussle but chief of staff Colonel Andre Andriarijaona said his forces could end up supporting the opposition ”if it would restore calm.”

About 1 000 Ravalomanana supporters set up barricades around a park surrounding the presidential palace on Saturday, armed with batons but clearly nervous.

The power grab by the opposition, which has accused Ravalomanana of running a dictatorship, came after the president acknowledged making
mistakes during the crisis.

More than 100 people have been killed in the unrest since the start of the year.

Last month, the presidential guard opened fire on opposition protesters marching on Ravalomanana’s office, killing 28 and wounding about 200.

The carnage drew international condemnation and caused deep dismay among the security establishment on the vast Indian Ocean island. – AFP



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