ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) – President Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar has vowed to fight to the death if rebel soldiers try to drive him from power in the Indian Ocean island.
Weeks of political turmoil have left Ravalomanana’s grip on power looking increasingly tenuous, and yesterday soldiers threw their support behind the opposition leader and stormed a presidential palace in the heart of the capital. A spokesman for the president’s office said Ravalomanana would never resign and was ready to die along with the loyal guards defending his grand residence outside the city centre.
“The president’s powers are now limited, obviously. This is becoming a military coup,” said spokesman Andry Ralijaona.
“The president plans to stay in Madagascar. He said this to the presidential guard, who told him he should be placed elsewhere, and he replied ‘I will die with you if I have to’. That’s his stand,” Ralijaona told Reuters late yesterday.
Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina has been leading public protests against Ravalomanana’s rule since the start of the year and said yesterday he was impatient to take office.
Rajoelina, 34, a former disc jockey who was sacked as Antananarivo’s mayor last month, accuses the president of running the country like a private company and has tapped into widespread public discontent with high levels of poverty.
The president’s supporters say Rajoelina is a troublemaker bent on seizing power illegally. At least 135 people have died in violence sparked by the political crisis, the $390 million-a-year tourism sector is collapsing, and foreign investors in the important mining and oil exploration sectors are watching events nervously.
The military in Madagascar has traditionally remained neutral in past bouts of political turbulence, but dissident officers staged a mutiny last week, ousted the chief of staff and said publicly yesterday that they were backing Rajoelina.
Soon afterwards, bursts of gunfire and explosions rocked the capital as tanks burst into the grounds of a presidential palace in the city centre and seized the central bank.
“We are there for the Malagasy people. If Andry Rajoelina can resolve the problem, we are behind him,” said Colonel Andre Ndriarijaona, who led the mutiny. The president’s spokesman outlined a series of options left to Ravalomanana — all potentially violent.
He said members of the army still loyal to the president could show their disagreement with the mutineers; remaining army loyalists could join forces with the dissidents and take on the presidential guards; or the people who still backed Ravalomanana could start a civil war.
The fourth option was for the president to seek military and administrative support from the international community.