Madagascar military group claims takeover

Citizens of Madagascar line up to cast their votes in a referendum in capital Antananarivo on Wednesday Nov. 17, 2010. Twenty months after Madagascar's president was ousted in a coup by a former disc jockey, voters decided Wednesday whether to accept or reject a new constitution that calls for keeping Andry Rajoelina in power indefinitely. (AP Photo)Citizens of Madagascar line up to cast their votes in a referendum in capital Antananarivo on Wednesday Nov. 17, 2010. Twenty months after Madagascar’s president was ousted in a coup by a former disc jockey, voters decided Wednesday whether to accept or reject a new constitution that calls for keeping Andry Rajoelina in power indefinitely. (AP Photo)
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ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) — A group of military officers revolted Wednesday as Madagascar held a referendum on a new constitution that calls for keeping a coup leader in power indefinitely, saying they now control this island nation off the coast of southeastern Africa.

But Andry Rajoelina, a former disc jockey who seized power with military backing last year, appeared confident of his hold on power, even though the comments from the officers undermined the message he had hoped Wednesday’s constitutional referendum would send — that he had the people’s support. The top officers said they have had enough of Mr. Rajoelina, and of the isolation and misery the March 2009 takeover caused.

Mr. Rajoelina, speaking to reporters outside a polling station in the capital where he had cast his referendum vote, said the majority of the military was behind him, “and not bothered by declarations from a handful of people.”

“They’ve threatened me with death if I don’t step down,” Mr. Rajoelina said. “But I’m not afraid of threats.”

His prime minister, Camille Vital, appeared on national television to denounce the officers as mutineers.

Mr. Vital called on soldiers to “respect discipline, respect institutions and show professionalism,” and said soldiers who supported Mr. Rajoelina had been sent to dismantle road blocks around the base where a colonel had made his declaration of takeover. Mr. Vital also said witnesses in the area say civilians were destroying materials at polling stations.

Col. Charles Andrianasoavina, who last year backed Mr. Rajoelina’s move to take power, told reporters the military will pursue national reconciliation, is dissolving government institutions and putting in place a national committee to lead the country at least provisionally. He said political prisoners would be freed and called on exiles to return “to work together to save our fatherland.” He did not say who would form the provisional governing committee.

The military has repeatedly intervened in politics on the island, undermining democracy.

“The people should remain calm and help preserve the peace,” Col. Andrianasoavina said at a military base near the capital’s airport.

In making the announcement, the colonel was joined by a general who had served as Mr. Rajoelina’s military chief and by the former head of security, also a soldier, of Marc Ravalomanana, the president who was ousted in 2009. It was a striking demonstration of unity, given signs in the past that the military has been divided by Mr. Rajoelina’s rise.

Mr. Rajoelina won’t be able to hold onto power long without the military’s support. Since this Indian Ocean island gained independence from France in 1960 it has struggled to establish stability and democracy.

Despite the officers’ declaration, which was broadcast only in part on one independent TV station, voting continued on the island of 20 million. It appeared few were initially aware of the officers’ move.

The military was growing increasingly impatient with Mr. Rajoelina, who has been internationally isolated and accused of trampling on democracy. The West has frozen all but emergency and humanitarian aid for the impoverished island.

In his statement,Col.  Andrianasoavina said Madagascar’s people have been awaiting a resolution of the political crisis for months.

Mr. Rajoelina has refused to allow Mr. Ravalomanana to return from exile in South Africa. In August, a court Mr. Rajoelina established convicted Mr. Ravalomanana in absentia of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced him to life in prison in a case related to the turmoil of the coup that toppled him.

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