Monday, February 2, 2009

African Union Concerned by Violence in Madagascar

By Jason McLure and Mike Cohen

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The African Union expressed concern that violence in Madagascar may destabilize the Indian Ocean island, after at least 34 people were killed during anti-government protests.

African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping urged all parties to exercise restraint in a standoff between supporters of President Marc Ravalomanana and followers of Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of the capital, Antananarivo.

The commission is “deeply concerned by the prevailing political tension and the risk it poses to the stability of the country,” Ping said in a statement e-mailed late yesterday.

Protests erupted in Antananarivo when Rajoelina’s television station was closed after it broadcast an interview with former Malagasy President Didier Ratsiraka. Rajoelina has described Ravalomana’s rule as a dictatorship and criticized the government’s decision to lease a large tract of farmland to South Korea’s Daewoo Corp.

Firefighters yesterday found 25 burned bodies in what remained of a Malagasy shopping center following unrest in Antananarivo, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Jaona Andrianaivo, the city’s top firefighter.

“At the moment, it’s quite unlikely that President Ravalomanana will be toppled,” said Philippe de Pontet, an Africa analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington. “By and large he’s still seen as legitimate.”

U.S. Travel Alert

Yesterday the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for Madagascar, saying there had been violent clashes between government forces and Rajoelina’s supporters and that shops had been looted and residences and businesses torched.

“The political demonstrations have intensified and remain volatile,” the department said in a statement on its Web site. “U.S. citizens already in Madagascar are urged to maintain a high level of vigilance and a low profile.”

Ravalomana, himself a former mayor of Antananarivo, took power from Didier Ratsiraka in 2002, following a seven-month standoff after a disputed election. He also owns Tiko, which he started as a dairy company and built into one of the country’s largest companies with media interests, food processing plants and a construction unit.

The president’s hold over politics and the economy “is seen by many Malagasy as disproportionate power in the hands of one man,” de Pontet said.