- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar | Madagascar’s top military officers handed over control of this Indian Ocean island nation to the toppled president’s rival on Tuesday, hours after the president stepped down and tried to put the military in charge.

In a ceremony broadcast from a military camp in the capital, Vice-Adm. Hyppolite Rarison Ramaroson said he and two generals rejected a move earlier Tuesday by the ousted president, Marc Ravalomanana, to transfer power to a military directorate.

Instead, Adm. Ramaroson said the military was installing opposition leader Andry Rajoelina as the country’s leader.

For months, Mr. Rajoelina - a disc jockey turned broadcasting magnate who had been mayor of the capital - has been pressing Mr. Ravalomanana to step down as president. His confrontation with Mr. Ravalomanana had led to deadly clashes.

After weeks of insisting he would never resign, Mr. Ravalomanana announced Tuesday afternoon he was ceding control to the military. Almost as he spoke, Mr. Rajoelina was parading triumphantly through the capital surrounded by armed soldiers and an adoring crowd after seizing control of one of the city’s presidential palaces.

Norbert Lala Ratsirahonana, a former chief of staff and former chief of the constitutional court, acted as master of ceremonies for the military announcement, lending the move legitimacy.

Mr. Rajoelina - at 34 too young to be president, according to the constitution - accuses Mr. Ravalomanana of misspending public funds and undermining democracy in Madagascar. This impoverished island off the coast of southeastern Africa is known both for its natural beauty and its history of political infighting and instability.

Over the weekend, Mr. 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 Mr. Ravalomanana, but soldiers refused.

Mr. Ravalomanana had said Mr. Rajoelina sought 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 had greatly weakened Mr. Ravalomanana.

Earlier Tuesday, Mr. 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.

Tensions have been rising since late January, when the government blocked an opposition radio station’s signal. Mr. Rajoelina’s supporters set fire to a building in the government broadcasting complex as well as to an oil depot, a shopping mall and a private TV station linked to Mr. 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 Mr. Ravalomanana much of the support of the military, which blamed him for the order to fire at demonstrators.

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