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Madagascar standoff tensions rise

Soldiers in the Madagascar capital, Antananarivo (14/03/2009)
More than 100 people have died since the political violence began in January

Tensions are high in the Madagascar capital Antananarivo, with more opposition protests expected.

The opposition, led by Andry Rajoelina, has been pressing for President Marc Ravalomanana to resign - a call he, again vowed to ignore on Sunday.

The opposition has moved into the prime minister's office but an ultimatum for President Ravalomanana to stand down passed without incident on Saturday.

More than 100 people have died since protests broke out in January.

The BBC's Jonah Fisher in Antananarivo says there is a tense atmosphere in the capital, where hundreds of people have been walking around carrying stones and large sticks.

Several large skips full of sand have been set up about 300m (yds) from the palace and presidential supporters are manning barricades around the park where the presidential palace stands, some 12km (eight miles) from Antananarivo, says our correspondent.

Mr Ravalomanana greeted the supporters on Sunday and vowed he would "never" resign.

Mr Rajoelina briefly attended a church service being held as part of a rally by his supporters in the centre of the capital.

He did not mention Saturday's failed ultimatum but told the crowd that Sunday was a day of God and he would make an announcement on Monday.

Army divided

Opposition leader Andy Rajoelina (L) and President Marc Ravalomanana
The power struggle has brought weeks of riots, protests and looting
Mr Rajoelina, a former mayor of the capital who was sacked by the government last month, has been trying to establish an alternative cabinet with himself as president.

On Saturday, he rallied some 5,000 supporters clad in orange T-shirts and hats in central Antananarivo and issued an ultimatum to Mr Ravalomanana, giving him four hours to leave the presidential palace.

He threatened to lead a march on the palace if Mr Ravalomanana did not leave, but after the deadline passed, the president emerged from the palace to say he had no plans to resign.

He told the BBC: "I'm still the president of Madagascar and I will remain the president".

"We must have a national conference and respect democracy."

Mr Rajoelina has said he is in "permanent contact" with the army and is giving them orders.

But our correspondent says there appear to be divisions within the military, with some elements joining calls for the president's resignation and others deeply opposed to Mr Rajoelina's ambitions.

On Wednesday, the leader of a widening mutiny within the army ousted the chief of staff and a day later the military police said they would no longer take orders from the government.

Economy hit

CRISIS TIMELINE
map

December 2006: Marc Ravalomanana returned as president for second term
31 January 2009: Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina says he is in charge of the country after weeks of bloody protests
3 February: Mr Rajoelina is sacked as mayor of Antananarivo
5 March: Mr Rajoelina goes into hiding
13 March: President Ravolamanana urges supporters to turn out and defend his authority
14 March: Mr Rajoelina re-emerges and gives president just hours to resign
Mr Ravalomanana, democratically elected to a second term in office in 2006, has described the opposition movement as an undemocratic street protest which "uses terror and repression to survive".

"A self-proclamation does not equate to legitimate power," he said.

The opposition do not seem to have the appetite for a violent confrontation with the president and his supporters and prefer, instead, to keep turning up the pressure, says our correspondent.

Nor, our correspondent adds, has there been any indication that the opposition will settle for a coalition with Mr Ravalomanana.

The crisis has hurt the country's economy. Its tourist industry, worth nearly $400m (290m) a year, has now had two months with no revenue.

Under President Ravalomanana, Madagascar's economy opened to foreign investment but 70% of the nation's 20 million population still live on incomes of less than $2 (1.40) a day.


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