Coup in Madagascar; opposition leader backs army

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gunfire, believed to be shots into the air by celebrating soldiers, was heard in Antananarivo today as the army of Madagascar forced armored vehicles into one of the country's many presidential palaces in an apparent military coup. Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana, whose I Love Madagascar party controls an overwhelming majority of seats in the National Assembly, was not in the palace and is said to be taking shelter in another palace six miles (10 km) from the site.

Andry Rajoelina

"The President of the Republic, the National Assembly and the Senate, and the government are removed from their duties," announced declaration signed by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina which also said new elections would be held within two years. Earlier in the day, Rajoelina, the former mayor of Antananarivo and head of the Tanora malaGasy Vonona movement, had called for President Ravalomanana to be arrested, rejecting the President's offer of a plebiscite on his rule. The occupation of the palace follows a long chain of events which includes Mr Rajoelina's January 31 declaration that he would "run all national affairs" of the country. Mr Rajoelina has been publicly supported in turn by the self-proclaimed chief of staff of the Army and it was unclear as of this writing whether he or the military were leading the coup, and Mr Rajoelina denied ordering the attack on the palace.

Marc Ravalomanana

President Ravalomanana, in response, called for the people of the outskirts of the capital to "organise themselves to thwart all movements of mutinous troops towards the palace in order to protect the president and the palace" on his private radio station.

The African Union, which has been urging both sides to come to the negotiating table during the several months of unrest which has led to the deaths of over one hundred Madagascans, condemned the attempted coup, urging the country to respect its constitution; that constitution bars Mr Rajoelina, who is 34, from the presidency for reasons of age.

Mr Rajoelina argues that under President Ravalomanana, freedoms in the country are being suppressed while large areas of land have been unfairly given over to foreign interests.

President Ravalomanana, meanwhile, has also accused Mr Rajoelina of being a puppet of former Madagascan president Didier Ratsiraka, whose refusal to leave power in 2001 after losing an election led to eight months of demonstrations.

The coup follows a number of legal rebuffs for Mr Rajoelina, who lost the mayorship after his January declaration of power and whose attempt to challenge the legitimacy of President Ravalomanana was rejected by the Madagascan Constitutional Court.