- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR (AP) - Dozens of soldiers broke down the gates of an unoccupied presidential palace Monday and took over the building after Madagascar’s opposition leader called on the military to arrest the president.

The president was in another palace in the capital of the Indian Ocean island nation.

An AP reporter watched as the soldiers drove an armored vehicle through the gates of the palace, which is usually used for ceremonial occasions. The building appeared deserted. The soldiers set off two explosions and fired shots, and later broke windows and doors in the palace compound.

A colonel leading what appeared to be 90 soldiers told The Associated Press that the operation was not an attack on the president. He said the soldiers simply wanted to control the building, the site of deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and the army this year.

He did not elaborate or give his name.

The soldiers, who also did not give their names, said they were part of Madagascar’s “new” army, an apparent reference to a faction that has declared it will no longer accept orders from President Marc Ravalomanana.

The president is accused of misspending public funds and undermining democracy. Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina declared himself president of a transitional government over the weekend and promised new presidential elections within two years.

Ravalomanana said he would not surrender power. The breakaway army faction has not explicitly backed Rajoelina but the split in the military has greatly weakened the president.

Both men have been able to draw crowds to street protests in recent days, but with people in the country waiting on the sidelines, it is unclear whether either has much popular support after weeks of confrontation. The apparent split in the military, while weakening the president, has only raised concerns that the country _ known both for its natural beauty and its history of political infighting _ may be headed toward more violence.

At a rally in the capital Monday, an aide whom Rajoelina calls his justice minister said Ravalomanana should be arrested.

Rajoelina followed by saying, “I call on the army and the police … to execute the minister of justice’s order, because Andry Rajoelina is in a hurry to get to his office.”

Muffled explosions were heard near the main presidential palace earlier in the day. A private radio station close to Ravalomanana reported that grenades had been tossed from passing vehicles to frighten supporters of the president. The station called for more people to go to the palace to protect the president.

There were no reports of injuries.

Tensions have been rising on this impoverished Indian Ocean island since late January, when the government blocked an opposition radio station’s signal.

Rajoelina supporters set fire to a building in the government broadcasting complex as well as an oil depot, a shopping mall and a private TV station linked to Ravalomanana. Scores of people were killed.

Days later, soldiers opened fire on anti-government protesters, killing at least 25. The incident cost Ravalomanana much of the support of the military, which blamed him for the order to fire at demonstrators.

Last week, the president’s army chief of staff yielded power to the leader of the group of mutinous soldiers.

Although Ravalomanana has lost most of his power base at home, he still enjoys international legitimacy as the nation’s elected president.

The African Union has appealed to the rivals to negotiate. Diplomats have warned that aid to Madagascar is in jeopardy.

___

Associated Press Writer Anita Powell in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.

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