Saturday, August 8, 2009

Icy atmosphere permeates Madagascar meeting in Maputo

Madagascar's feuding leaders met on Wednesday for direct talks for the first time since opposition leader Andry Rajoelina ousted President Marc Ravalomanana from power nearly five months ago.

The rivals began four days of mediation with the country's main political groups and former leaders Didier Ratsiraka and Albert Zafy in a Mozambican-led push to resolve the vast Indian Ocean island's deadlock.

"I have no reason to doubt the patriotism of each and every one of you," mediation leader and former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano told the opening session.

"I think that all of you wish the well-being of the people of Madagascar even though you may find different ways to work."

Rajoelina and Ravalomanana did not interact at a group photo session which followed the singing of the country's national anthem, at Ratsiraka's request, before each group moved into a side room with mediators.

Despite the initial icy atmosphere, the pair later exchanged a handshake.

All previous attempts to find a negotiated solution have foundered on the content of a transition charter supposed to take Madagascar to new elections and bring the country out of its current isolation.

Rajoelina's administration has been ostracised by the international community since ousting Ravalomanana, whose delegation told AFP that the fallen leader is in Maputo with a "spirit of confidence".

"He hopes that an agreement will be signed," a delegation member said ahead of the talks.

Chissano was appointed by regional leaders in June to mediate the crisis after initiatives by the African Union and the United Nations broke down.

"It's an historical meeting. We consider it as a step, an important step," Tiebele Drame, a member of the UN mediation team told reporters.

Key issues include a peaceful transition to ensure stability, the issue of amnesty, leadership of the transition, the formation of a consensus government to represent all political opinions, and the return of Ravolomanana who is in exile in South Africa, he said.

The Southern African Development Community, which handed the mediation role to Chissano, also hopes the meeting will pave the way forward for the leaders.

"The objective of this meeting is to bring the parties to an agreement on the path to follow to re-establish stability and political co-existence in Madagascar," SADC executive Tomaz Salomoa told reporters on Tuesday.

At the end of the first day of meetings Ravalomanana said he was "happy" with proceedings, and while he hadn't spoken much, it was still early.

Rajoelina said: "We don't have the same ideas but we have to be flexible for the superior interest of the nation, so that the people from Madagascar live in peace again."

Earlier in the day Rajoelina said he would seek consensus to end the crisis.

"I have come here personally to tell them to their face how I see the future of Madagascar," he added.

Madagascar has been in crisis since January because of a standoff between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, then mayor of the capital and leader of an increasingly vociferous opposition.

After demonstrations that left more than 100 dead, Ravalomanana, abandoned by the army, put power in the hands of a military directorate who immediately transferred it to Rajoelina.

Since then, the international community has been demanding a return to "constitutional order" and has suspended the bulk of its aid to Madagascar, one of the poorest nations in the world.

The mediation team includes officials from the AU, UN, the International Organisation of the Francophonie (French-speaking countries) and the Southern African Development Community.