- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR (AP) - Madagascar’s opposition leader entered one of the capital’s presidential palaces Tuesday, welcomed by mutinous soldiers who apparently support his confrontation with the country’s increasingly isolated president.

The soldiers had seized the deserted palace, usually used for ceremonial purposes, on Monday night. The president was in his official residence, surrounded by supporters and army guards.

In addition to soldiers, opposition leader Andry Rajoelina was greeted by mpiandry, traditional healers who specialize in exorcism. The palace had been the site of a deadly clash between anti-government supporters and troops last month.

Rajoelina accuses President Marc Ravalomanana of misspending public funds and undermining democracy in Madagascar _ an impoverished Indian Ocean island of the coast of Africa known both for its natural beauty and its history of political infighting and instability.

Rajoelina declared himself president of a transitional government over the weekend and promised new presidential elections within two years. On Monday, he called on the army to arrest the president, but soldiers have not.

The president charges that Rajoelina is seeking power by unconstitutional means, and has said he would not resign. The breakaway army faction had claimed it was neutral and interested only in restoring order, but the split in the military has greatly weakened the president.

Edmond Razafimanantena, a newsstand owner in the capital, said he didn’t want the president, his rival or the soldiers in charge.

“You can’t expect anything from these politicians, the opposition is as bad as the government. And you can’t accept mutinous soldiers running the country,” he said.

Tensions have been rising 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 _ at the same palace seized Monday _ cost Ravalomanana much of the support of the military, which blamed him for the order to fire at demonstrators.

Angele Ramaromihanta, a secretary living in the capital, said a peaceful solution must be found.

“I don’t understand why the politicians don’t want to talk,” she said Tuesday. “I’m afraid of the army seizing power _ donors won’t want to help us.”

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