- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR (AP) - Soldiers broke into an unoccupied presidential palace Monday and took it over in a symbolic show of force after Madagascar’s opposition leader called on the army to arrest the president.

President Marc Ravalomanana has been in another palace in the capital in recent days, with civilian supporters and presidential guards protecting him.

Soldiers told the president’s supporters Monday to take down barriers they set up near the palace where he is staying. It was not clear if they intended to move on him.

Ravalomanana is accused of misspending public funds and undermining democracy in Madagascar _ an Indian Ocean island known both for its natural beauty and its history of political infighting and instability. Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina declared himself president of a transitional government over the weekend and promised new presidential elections within two years.

The president charges that Rajoelina is seeking power by unconstitutional means, and has said he would not surrender power. The breakaway army faction that took over the palace Monday has not explicitly backed Rajoelina but the split in the military has greatly weakened the president.

An Associated Press reporter at the palace watched as the soldiers drove an armored vehicle through the gates of the 19th century French mansion, which is used mostly for state ceremonies. The soldiers set off two explosions, fired shots and broke windows and doors.

The building, which appeared deserted, was the site of deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and the army earlier this year. A faction of the army withdrew its support for Ravalomanana largely due to the deaths of civilians in those clashes.

A colonel leading what appeared to be 90 soldiers told The Associated Press that the operation was not an attack on the president. He said the soldiers simply wanted to control the building. He did not elaborate or give his name.

Noel Rakotonandrasana _ spokesman for the army faction that won’t take orders from the president _ said later the palace and its surroundings had been “secured” with no trouble or resistance. He would not say why it was taken.

Tensions have been rising in this impoverished nation 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 at the palace seized Monday, killing at least 25. The incident cost Ravalomanana much of the support of the military, which blamed him for the order to fire at demonstrators.

Last week, the president’s army chief of staff yielded power to the leader of the group of mutinous soldiers.

Both the president and Rajoelina have been able to draw crowds to street protests in recent days, but it is unclear whether either has wider popular support after weeks of confrontation. The split in the military has only raised concerns that the country may be headed toward more violence.

At a rally in the capital Monday, an aide whom Rajoelina calls his justice minister said Ravalomanana should be arrested.

Rajoelina followed by saying, “I call on the army and the police … to execute the minister of justice’s order, because Andry Rajoelina is in a hurry to get to his office.”

Muffled explosions were heard near the main presidential palace earlier in the day. A private radio station close to Ravalomanana reported that grenades had been tossed from passing vehicles to frighten supporters of the president. The station called for more people to go to the palace to protect the president.

There were no reports of injuries.

The African Union has appealed to the rivals to negotiate. Diplomats have warned that aid to Madagascar is in jeopardy.

The Peace Corps said it was suspending its programs and pulling 112 volunteers out of Madagascar. The U.S. agency also said it has canceled the next batch of Madagascar assignments and will reassign workers who had been due to go there.

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