- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar When a former yogurt salesman turned millionaire businessman seized control of Madagascar's capital and had himself declared president after a botched election, the stage was set for a potentially bloody showdown.
More than two months later, that hasn't happened. But with the steamy Indian Ocean island split between rival presidents, Cabinets and capitals, clashes are growing more frequent and more violent.
On Friday, one president's supporters tried to seize the governor's office in the country's second-largest city, Fianarantsoa, triggering a firefight that killed a Canadian missionary.
And on Saturday, five soldiers were killed and 18 were wounded when their truck came under fire as they tried to enter the city to reinforce the governor's defenses, hospital officials said.
Still, the estimated death toll approaching 40 since the political standoff began in January is not as bad as the 100 or more who were killed in 1991, when President Didier Ratsiraka ordered troops to fire on a crowd demanding his resignation.
"We don't like confrontation and we don't think violence is the way to solve problems," explained Elyett Rasendratsirofo, a civil rights campaigner. "We don't think death is the end of everything . When you leave this life, you join your ancestors and your sins follow you."
Madagascar's current political turmoil began with Dec. 16 presidential elections, which pitted Marc Ravalomanana, 51, a self-made dairy and cooking-oil millionaire, against Mr. Ratsiraka, 67, who served as military ruler from 1975 to 1993 and was returned to power in a 1996 vote.
The election was a shambles according to election observers: Ballot papers were tampered with and did not reconcile, voter rolls were incomplete, and the results were confirmed by a High Constitutional Court appointed illegally by Mr. Ratsiraka the day before campaigning started.
Despite widespread evidence of attempts to rig the balloting in Mr. Ratsiraka's favor, Mr. Ravalomanana claimed outright victory in the first round and orchestrated a series of protests and a general strike aimed at forcing Mr. Ratsiraka to step down.
Hundreds of thousands of ardent opposition supporters attended rallies in the normally sleepy hillside capital's main plaza, installed opposition ministers in office and stood vigil outside the central bank to stop officials running off with the reserves.
Hardly any violence accompanied the protests, which the country's weak and divided military appeared unwilling or unable to stop.
"In Madagascar, we do things peacefully. We don't use force," said Mr. Ravalomanana, who believes he has a legitimate if not strictly legal right to the presidency.
Unlike many nations in turmoil, Madagascar's people share a common language and culture, which has helped unite the island state's more than 18 tribes the descendants of settlers from Africa, Asia, Indonesia, Europe and Polynesia.
Although there are simmering ethnic tensions between the Merin people, who live on the highland, and groups living along the coast, rarely do these turn violent.
There is no clear indication who is really in charge of the country, especially in inaccessible rural areas, where 80 percent of Madagascar's 16 million people eke out livings as subsistence farmers.
Even in the capital, Antananarivo, where bands of self-styled opposition security personnel patrol the narrow, cobbled streets, pockets of pro-Ratsiraka soldiers have barricaded themselves inside their barracks and threatened to shoot anyone who tries to dislodge them.
Mr. Ratsiraka, who moved his government to his eastern coastal stronghold of Toamasina, has to date also avoided the use of wholesale violence in a bid to re-establish control, instead ordering a blockade of roads leading into the capital, to starve the opposition stronghold of fuel.
"Since 1991, people have learned what a peaceful fight means," said Anglican Archbishop Remi Joseph Rabenirina.
But fears are mounting that a collapse of the country's economy, brought about by the opposition strike and the government blockade, could spark civil unrest.
Thousands of jobs have already been lost; taxes, bills and salaries are only paid intermittently, if at all; and the banking system has been paralyzed.
Although Antananarivo's sidewalks are choked with pedestrians, the city's thousands of ragged traders who hustle everything from scrap material to used clothing say business has never been worse.
While the political elite drive around in shiny new four-wheel-drive vehicles, the ranks of the city's beggars have noticeably swelled, and many people complain of going hungry.
The standoff shows no signs of ending and international mediation efforts have drawn to a standstill as political violence intensifies.
On Friday, supporters of Mr. Ravalomanana tried to seize the governor's office in Fianarantsoa, trading fire with Ratsiraka loyalists.
Joseph Roger Morin, a 76-year-old Canadian missionary, was shot during the fighting the first foreigner to be killed since the violence began. He was hit by a bullet fired through a window of the Sacred Heart monastery.
Two soldiers and a child were injured during the clash, hospital officials said.
Last month, military police opened fire on a group of opposition supporters in Fianarantsoa, killing three of them. And Mr. Ravalomanana recently gave the go-ahead to his supporters to confront "terrorists" enforcing the barricade of the capital a call that prompted the looting of several government loyalists' homes.
The opposition also complains the government is orchestrating a widespread and often violent campaign to intimidate its supporters in areas outside the capital. The accusations are supported by civil rights groups and have been widely reported in the local media.
"Conflict is ready to burst out if there is an attack on either side," said Mr. Rabenirina. "I fear the use of more force will come."

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