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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Human shield used in Madagascar
Pro-Ravalomanana soldiers arrest pro-Ratsiraka militias
Will Antsiranana and Tamatave be next to swap hands?
Dozens of people have been used as a human shield in Madagascar by former president Didier Ratsiraka's supporters in one of his two remaining strongholds on the island.

Around 70 people who had been chained to the railings of the governor's office in Antsiranana on Monday were later taken to a military camp by their captors.

I don't know if they are human shields or hostages. I didn't chain them up, the soldiers did.

Jean-Robert Gara Antsiranana governor
The people used to make up the human shield are reported by Mr Ratsiraka's camp to be Mr Ravalomanana's mercenaries captured in combat, but witnesses said they were itinerant traders from the same ethnic group as Mr Ravalomanana.

This latest development in the crisis which has pitted the two men against each other since they ran for the presidential election in December, comes 24 hours after Mr Ravalomanana said that his camp would soon control the two provinces held by Mr Ratsiraka.

'Imminent attack'

"Within the next few days, we shall once again control the whole territory," he told the French daily La Croix on Monday.

"The reconquest is slow because we want to stick to our philosophy, which is to do so in a peaceful manner," he said.

Witnesses told the French news agency AFP that Didier Ratsiraka's forces used the human shield to prevent the capture of Antsiranana as Mr Ravalomanana's men marched on the port city.

Other witnesses are quoted as saying that none of the detainees was in combat dress or uniform, casting doubt on their captors' allegations that they were mercenaries fighting on the other side.

"I don't know if they are human shields or hostages. I didn't chain them up, the soldiers did," the pro-Ratsiraka governor of Antsiranana province, Jean-Robert Gara, told AFP.

He added that he feared Mr Ravalomanana's attack on Antsiranana was imminent.

Troop movements

Forces loyal to Mr Ravalomanana seized the provinces of Mahajanga and Toliara without encountering much resistance recently.

The capture of the two cities two weeks ago means that Antananarivo has once again access to petrol, one of the commodities in short supply during the blockage of the capital carried out by Mr Ratsiraka's supporters.

But AFP reports that Antsiranana, which is heavily defended by backers of Mr Ratsiraka, is expected to put up a stiff fight.

The last few metres to the petrol station
Most motorists in Antananarivo have been affected by the blockades

Antsiranana in the north, and Tamatave, in the east, are both key ports, and the last two provincial capitals still controlled by Mr Ratsiraka.

Like Antsiranana, the province of Tamatave has been the scene of troop movements recently.

The presence of regular forces in the province has reportedly begun to unsettle Mr Ratsiraka's militias, the Malagasy newspaper Midi Madagasiraka reported on Tuesday.

More barricades

One of these militias, the Zatovo, has erected a barricade at the entrance of Tamatave and close to the city's airport, the paper added.

In another development, a dozen European mercenaries have reportedly been training Zatovo militias since Sunday, military sources are quoted as saying by another newspaper, Madagascar Tribune.

The paper says that military equipment arrived in Tamatave at the weekend.

Petrol back

Meanwhile, petrol pumps have begun working again in Antananarivo, the capital, for the first time in nearly four months.

The 12,000 tons of fuel may be described as a modest quantity by sources from the petrol industry, but the BBC's Jonny Donovan in Antananarivo says that it looks set to return the capital to a state of relative normality for the time being.

He says that since Monday night queues of idling cars have stretched for hundreds of metres out of the dozens of newly reopened petrol stations.

And the streets, which for so long have been virtually free of cars, have once again begun to clog up with the familiar traffic jams.

Key stories


See also:

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