Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Madagascar troops, opposition clash in capital

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) — Anti-government protesters threw stones and police responded with tear gas Monday in Madagascar, the impoverished Indian Ocean island where an opposition leader is trying to force out the president. No casualties were immediately reported.

The latest violence began, as previous deadly clashes have, with a protest called by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina at a central square. About 3,000 people had gathered expecting to march on government buildings after a weekend vow from Rajoelina that his supporters would hold sit-ins outside ministries and not leave "until our ministers take possession of the offices."

Rajoelina accuses President Marc Ravalomanana of misspending funds and says the president is responsible for the deaths of at least 25 civilians killed by police fire during an earlier protest.

After security forces barred the protesters from leaving the square, Rajoelina asked most of the crowd to stay behind, saying a delegation would proceed to just two nearby ministries.

"I don't want to sacrifice your lives," he said.

The delegation returned saying it had found the ministries' doors locked. Several ministries had sent workers home earlier in the day for safety reasons.

The delegation recommended trying again Tuesday with the help of locksmiths, but the crowd grew angry. Stones were thrown, and police dispersed the crowd by firing tear gas.

By evening, the capital was relatively calm.

Madagascar, a nation of 20 million people off the coast of southern Africa, has seen intense political turmoil this year. On Feb. 7, police fired at opposition supporters marching toward the presidential palace, killing at least 25 people. In late January, opposition protests sparked riots and looting that left dozens dead.

Within days of the Feb. 7 shootings, Madagascar's defense minister had resigned and the president replaced the army chief, signs of cracks in the president's support base. But it is far from clear that Rajoelina has the power to force out Ravalomanana.

The two camps began talks last week mediated by religious leaders and diplomats who have urged them to call off demonstrations.

Rajoelina, whose background is in advertising and broadcasting, has tapped into grievances in this impoverished country. Ravalomanana sees the opposition leader as a front man for more established figures in a nation known for its political infighting.

The country's council of Catholic bishops denounced provocations and threats from the opposing camps, particularly on radio and TV — both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana have their own broadcast stations.

"Mediation efforts are blocked and we fear civil war," the bishops said Friday.

In a statement Sunday, African Union chief Jean Ping urged "all concerned to refrain from any action" that could undermine the negotiations.

Madagascar is known for its rare wildlife and eco-tourism, but more than half the population lives on less than $1 per day.