- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR (AP) - An army faction that has said it will no longer obey Madagascar’s leader announced Friday that it has taken control of army tanks, but denied rumors that it plans to attack the presidential palace.

Col. Noel Rakotonandrasana, spokesman for the group, told The Associated Press that an unspecified number of tanks were moved overnight “to barracks where they are needed.” Rakotonandrasana would not elaborate.

While the faction has rejected President Marc Ravalomanana, it has not explicitly supported his rival, Andry Rajoelina. The soldiers say their priority is keeping order while the politicians work out their differences, not march on the palace.

Last month, the rivalry led to deadly violence in the capital.

The president met Friday with local religious leaders and U.N. officials who have tried to mediate between him and Rajoelina. Afterward, according to a statement read on state radio, Ravalomanana warned the mutineers not to target him.

“Killing me would not be in your interest,” he said.

“The people would suffer from it, and the international community would never accept it. All aid would be cut and we would compromise the country’s development. Once more, I call on the army and security forces to remain united and neutral.”

No tanks were seen Friday in the increasingly tense capital. A private radio station owned by Ravalomanana was urging listeners to go to the presidency to protect him, and pro- as well as anti-government demonstrators were gathering in the streets.

The military’s support for the president began to waver last month after security forces opened fire and killed at least 25 pro-Rajoelina demonstrators in the capital.

Earlier this week, the leader of the mutineers, Col. Andre Ndrianarijaona, declared himself army chief. But the president received a measure of support Thursday from Vice Adm. Mamy Ranaivoniarivo, who had resigned as defense minister this week, apparently under pressure from the mutineers. State radio said Thursday that Ranaivoniarivo was back as defense minister.

On that day, Ravalomanana urged the army to remain neutral in the political contest.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that “the only solution to the current crisis is the resumption of dialogue,” his spokeswoman Michele Montas said at U.N. headquarters in New York. “While there is concern over divisions within the armed forces, he welcomes the decision by the armed forces to continue to respect constitutional order.”

A conference to resolve the crisis was to have begun Thursday, but was indefinitely postponed because the opposition refused to participate.

Opposition leader Rajoelina, then mayor of the capital, set off the turmoil in January by leading protests against Ravalomanana and proposing that he take over.

Ravalomanana is a wealthy businessman who started his political career as mayor of the capital. He dismissed Rajoelina as Antananarivo’s mayor as the crisis escalated.

Madagascar is one of Africa’s poorest nations, with more than half the population living on less than $1 per day _ even though oil was discovered three years ago, raising the political stakes. The nation of 20 million people is known for its rare wildlife and eco-tourism, but also for political standoffs.

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