- Associated Press - Friday, November 19, 2010

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) — Soldiers clashed briefly with hundreds of civilians Friday outside a base where dissident military officers have been holed up for three days after attempting a coup.

Earlier Friday, the country’s defense minister ordered civilians to clear the area. Defense Minister Gen. Lucien Rakotoarimasy said the evacuation was not ordered in preparation for an attack but soldiers and vehicles were deployed along a road near the base.

Gen. Rakotoarimasy said negotiations are under way with the mutinous officers who have been at the base near the capital’s airport since declaring on Wednesday they were taking over the country from Andry Rajoelina, who himself grabbed power with military backing last year.

Hundreds of civilians ignored Friday’s evacuation order and converged on the area to show support for Marc Ravalomanana, the elected president whom Mr. Rajoelina ousted in a 2009 coup. Soldiers fired tear gas, and the protesters dispersed as heavy rain started to fall. The base itself appeared calm.

The officers at the base include Col. Charles Andrianasoavina, who last year backed Mr. Rajoelina’s move to take power from Mr. Ravalomanana after months of deadly violence and political turmoil.

Since then, Madagascar has been isolated by the international community and some in the military have grown disenchanted. Mr. Rajoelina has rejected international mediation efforts, imposing his own plan that he insisted would lead to new presidential elections some time next year.

Mr. Rajoelina’s plan included a constitutional referendum held Wednesday, the day the officers announced their takeover bid. With 12 percent of results tallied Friday, the “yes” vote was about 70 percent.

The proposed new charter largely resembles the existing constitution, but states that the current leader of a so-called High Transitional Authority — Mr. Rajoelina — would remain in power until a new president is elected. There is no certainty new elections would be held. The proposed constitution also sets the minimum age to be president at 35 instead of the current 40. Mr. Rajoelina is 36.

Since this Indian Ocean island gained independence from France in 1960, soldiers have repeatedly meddled in politics.

The army chief of staff, who is loyal to Mr. Rajoelina, called for calm.

“Only dialogue and negotiations can resolve the current situation,” Gen. Andre Ndriarijaona told reporters. “Negotiations are going well. We will try to resolve this as quickly as possible.”