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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 17:17 GMT
Martial law imposed in Madagascar
Rival supporters clash in Antananarivo on Wednesday
Wednesday's violence was the first in the capital
Madagascar's President Didier Ratsiraka has declared martial law in the capital, Antananarivo, after weeks of opposition protests.

Mr Ratsiraka's announcement comes a day after the crisis over disputed election results deepened with riots and violence in the city.

The police and military had already been given sweeping new powers last week after Mr Ratsiraka's rival, Marc Ravalomanana - who is Antananarivo's mayor - declared himself president.

But the new powers have not been used so far in the capital.

Military governor

Announcing martial law at a press conference, Mr Ratsiraka said he was taking this course with "great sadness", because of general strikes which had devastated the economy and the violence on Wednesday, which he blamed on the opposition.

Crisis timeline
16 Dec - Presidential election held
7 Jan - Opposition claim rigging, begin daily protests
25 Jan - Result announced, run-off ordered
28 Jan - Opposition strike begins
22 Feb - Ravalomanana declares himself president, PM announces state of emergency
27 Feb - First violent clashes in capital
28 Feb - President imposes martial law in capital

He said he was handing over all his powers in the capital to a military governor - in effect bypassing his rival, the mayor.

"I think that in this way we will be able to help the mayor of Antananarivo put the town back in order. The workers will go back to work, the students go back to school, so everyone gets on with their normal lives."

Mr Ratsiraka said martial law would come into force tomorrow, implemented by the man he has appointed as military governor, General Leon Claude Raveloarison.

Under pressure

Mr Ratsiraka, who was Madagascar's military ruler for 17 years before coming to power in elections in 1996, has been facing mounting pressure to step down.

Marc Ravalomanana at Friday's 'inauguration' rally
Mr Ravalomanana insists he won December's poll
He has not been seen in the capital recently and has made no public comments for two weeks.

There was no immediate reaction to Thursday's announcement from Marc Ravalomanana, who claims he won the December election.

But his spokesman had previously said the mayor's camp would be opposed to any declaration of martial law as a means of resolving the deadlock.

After declaring himself president last Friday, Mr Ravalomanana began setting up a rival administration by appointing his own prime minister on Tuesday.

A full cabinet is expected to be announced shortly.

Power vacuum

Protests in the capital on Thursday were peaceful after the violence of the day before.

President Didier Ratsiraka
President Ratsiraka denies the counting was rigged
An overnight curfew was declared after the clashes, but reports from Antananarivo said it had been widely flouted and that opposition supporters were still manning roadblocks.

The rioting began when a group of 100-200 Ratsiraka supporters marched through the city, straight into thousands of opposition demonstrators.

The BBC's Alastair Leithead, who is in Madagascar, says there are strong suggestions they were paid to cause trouble, but that this is difficult to confirm.

A pro-Ratsiraka radio station was also burnt to the ground.

Several people were injured in the violence and unconfirmed reports speak of two deaths.

The formal economy and government have been at a virtual standstill for more than a month due to a general strike and pro-Ravalomanana demonstrations.

Observers say there is an almost complete power vacuum as most government ministries have closed.

The BBC's Alastair Leithead
"Protests are going on through the night"
See also:

27 Feb 02 | Africa
Riots rock Madagascar
26 Feb 02 | Africa
Rival Madagascar premier named
25 Feb 02 | Africa
Violence flares in Madagascar
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