Madagascar president denies rival power grab

The army said it would not intervene in the tussle but chief of staff Colonel Andre Andriarijaona said his forces could end up supporting the opposition “if it would restore calm” to the Indian Ocean island.

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The opposition\’s leader Andry Rajoelina, addressing thousands of supporters in his first public appearance since March 3, called on Ravalomanana to “humbly leave power in the next four hours” as his side promised fresh elections.

Rajoelina later told AFP he was in command of the country\’s army.

“The army no longer takes its orders from the president of the republic,” he said. “It is I who commands the army today. They receive orders from Andry Rajoelina, and not only in Antananarivo, but throughout Madagascar.”

The opposition leader said President Marc Ravalomanana was a spent force.

“Ravalomanana always underestimated the power of a united people,” he said. “We asked him gently to resign, we waited for a peaceful transition.”

He said the president “no longer is in charge of the country,” as he had lost the support of the people and had flouted the constitution.

“We will take over the running of the country. We will appoint our ministers,” he added.

Another of the opposition\’s leaders, Roindefo Zafitsimivalo Monja, said “the president of the republic, the National Assembly and the Senate, and the government are removed from their duties.”

“We commit to organising presidential, parliamentary and district elections, in not more than 24 months,” said Monja, the opposition\’s nominee for the post of prime minister.

As the four-hour deadline expired, the embattled president remained rooted in his official residence and defied calls to quit.

Ravalomanana said he was still in power, stressing that the opposition “lacks the power given by the people in democratic elections.

“This movement is … a street protest which uses terror and repression to survive,” he said. “Self-proclamation gives no legal power.”

About 1,000 supporters of the embattled president set up barricades around a park surrounding the presidential palace, some 12 kilometres (eight miles) from the capital Antananarivo, armed with batons but clearly nervous.

“We are here to protect the president. Nobody makes concessions to mercenaries anywhere in the world. Why are we negotiating with Rajoelina, who is a mercenary?” a supporter told AFP.

Power grab

The power grab by the opposition, which has accused Ravalomanana of running a dictatorship, came after the president acknowledged making mistakes during the crisis.

Monja, who spoke to reporters from the prime minister\’s office after the opposition took control of the building, was accompanied by other opposition ministerial nominees and around 30 soldiers.

The president of the assembly Jacques Sylla told the crowd: “There is only one solution: the resignation of President Ravalomanana.”

In Brussels the European Commission, the EU\’s executive, said it was seriously concerned by the developments, while the UN envoy to Madagascar, Tiebile Drame, urged the two sides to find a compromise.

Rajoelina, an ex-DJ and former mayor of the capital who set up a parallel administration last month as part of his strategy to destabilise the government, had been under UN protection since evading arrest last week.

On Thursday followers of both Ravalomanana and Rajoelina took to the streets to press their campaigns following weeks of mounting tension which began in January after Rajoelina called anti-government protests.

Casualties mount

More than 100 people have been killed in the unrest since the start of the year.

Last month, the presidential guard opened fire on opposition protesters marching on one of Ravalomanana\’s offices, killing 28 and wounding some 200.

The carnage drew international condemnation and caused deep dismay among the security establishment on the vast Indian Ocean island.

Rajoelina had demanded Ravalomanana\’s resignation and the formation of a full transitional government but the president vowed to continue in power until the end of his term in 2011.