- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR (AP) - Madagascar’s president ceded power Tuesday after weeks of turmoil on the Indian Ocean island as his rival took control of a presidential palace and paraded through the capital surrounded by armed soldiers and an adoring crowd.

But President Marc Ravalomanana said he would hand power to the military only _ not to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, who already has declared himself head of a transitional government and took an oath of office Tuesday.

“After deep reflection, I have decided to dissolve the government and give up power so that a military directorate can be established,” he said in an address on a private radio station seen as close to him. “This decision was very difficult and very hard, but it had to be made. We need calm and peace to develop our country.”

An aide to Ravalomanana said on the radio that the military directorate would be made up of veteran, high-ranking military leaders who would organize a national conference that would be responsible for holding elections within two years. Ravalomanana’s term would have ended in 2011.

The members of the directorate were not named, and there was no immediate reaction from Rajoelina.

Rajoelina accuses Ravalomanana of misspending public funds and undermining democracy in Madagascar _ an impoverished island off the coast of southeastern Africa known both for its natural beauty and its history of political infighting and instability.

Over the weekend, Rajoelina declared himself president of a transitional government and promised new presidential elections within two years. On Monday, he called on the army to arrest the president but soldiers refused.

The president says Rajoelina is seeking power by unconstitutional means. A breakaway army faction had claimed it was neutral and interested only in restoring order, but the split in the military has greatly weakened the president.

Earlier Tuesday, Rajoelina entered one of the capital’s presidential palaces, welcomed by mutinous soldiers who apparently support him, as well as by traditional healers who specialize in exorcism _ the palace had been the site of a deadly clash between anti-government protesters and troops last month.

The soldiers had seized the deserted palace, usually used for ceremonial purposes, on Monday night. The president was in his official residence, surrounded by supporters and army guards.

Edmond Razafimanantena, a newsstand owner in the capital, said he didn’t want the president, his rival or the military in charge.

“You can’t expect anything from these politicians, the opposition is as bad as the government. And you can’t accept mutinous soldiers running the country,” he said.

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

Angele Ramaromihanta, a secretary living in the capital, said a peaceful solution must be found.

“I don’t understand why the politicians don’t want to talk,” she said Tuesday. “I’m afraid of the army seizing power _ donors won’t want to help us.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “gravely concerned about the evolving developments in Madagascar,” said U.N. associate spokeswoman Marie Okabe at headquarters in New York.

“The secretary-general calls on all concerned, particularly the police and the army, to ensure the security of the population and work together toward a nonviolent resolution of the crisis,” Okabe said.

The African Union, which held a meeting about Madagascar at its Ethiopian headquarters Tuesday, wavered on whether Ravalomanana’s resignation would lead to the Indian Ocean island’s suspension from the continental body.

According to the AU’s charter, coups or unconstitutional changes of government are cause for automatic suspension. The country is only readmitted when constitutional order is restored, usually by elections.

AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping told journalists that if the military leadership handed power to Rajoelina, the capital’s former mayor, that would violate the constitution.

But, he said, if the military were to allow the prime minister to take charge and arrange elections, the move could be considered constitutional.

“If they don’t follow this, this is a coup, or an attempt to seize the power by force,” Ping told journalists. “If they give the mayor access to the power, it’s not constitutional. We don’t know yet what is going to happen, exactly.”

Madagascar is scheduled to host this year’s AU summit in June or July, but could not do so if it were suspended.

___

Associated Press writers Anita Powell in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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