- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR (AP) - Madagascar’s opposition leader called on the military Monday to arrest the nation’s president as a power struggle between the two appeared to be reaching a decisive moment.

There was no immediate response from the military. An army faction has declared it will no longer accept orders from President Marc Ravalomanana, but it has refused to explicitly back opposition leader Andry Rajoelina.

Rajoelina declared himself president of a transitional government over the weekend, but Ravalomanana said he would not surrender power.

Both men have been able to draw crowds to street protests in recent days, but with people in the country waiting on the sidelines, it is unclear whether either has much popular support after weeks of confrontation. The apparent split in the military, while weakening the president, 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.”

In the Ethiopian capital, outside an African Union meeting on Madagascar, the president’s faction responded with a threat of its own.

Jean Pierre Rakotoarivony, Madagascar’s ambassador to the African Union, told reporters Rajoelina was attempting a coup and could face trial.

Rakotoarivony said the referendum, proposed by the current president, will be held within three months. Voters will be asked whether they support the president and, if they do not, elections will be held, the ambassador said.

But Rajoelina rejected the proposed referendum Monday.

“As far as we’re concerned, the referendum has already been held,” he said on the radio. “The people have spoken. They are of one mind: Mr. Ravalomanana must resign. He no longer has any power.”

Early Monday, muffled explosions were heard near the presidential palace. 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.

Tensions have been rising on this impoverished Indian Ocean island since Rajoelina began street protests late last year. Rajoelina accuses the president of misspending funds and undermining democracy.

In late January, after 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, 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 a group of mutinous soldiers. The new chief of staff insists he is neutral, but the effect has been to bolster Rajoelina.

Although Ravalomanana has lost most of his power base at home, he still enjoys international legitimacy as the nation’s elected president.

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

Madagascar is known for its rare wildlife and eco-tourism _ but also for its history of political infighting.

___

Associated Press Writer Anita Powell in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.

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