Madagascar's army issues 72-hour crisis ultimatum
ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Madagascar's army gave the country's feuding leaders 72 hours on Tuesday to resolve a political crisis that has killed about 135 people and devastated the economy, or face an intervention by the military.
At least some of the Malagasy military have mutinied in recent days, angry at a crackdown by President Marc Ravalomanana's government on demonstrations spearheaded by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina.
"We promise to remain neutral. We implore all political players, civil society organisations and other parties to reunite immediately to find a solution within the next 72 hours to help the nation out of the current crisis," General Edmond Rasolomahandry, the army's chief of staff, told reporters.
"If no solution is found within this time, we, the armed forces, will fulfil our responsibilities in the greater interests of the nation," he said, without elaborating.
The United Nations is guarding Rajoelina, who fears arrest, and Defence Minister Mamy Ranaivoniarivo quit on Tuesday after just a month in the job -- apparently pressured by rebel troops.
Flanked by soldiers, Ranaivoniarivo read his resignation letter to reporters at his office. Earlier, a colonel behind the mutiny said dissenting troops were in control of the building.
"Perhaps I resigned under threat. I do not like it that Malagasy people are killing each other," Ranaivoniarivo told Reuters by telephone later, adding that resignation was "the best solution to my mind."
His predecessor quit last month after the presidential guard shot dead 28 anti-government protesters. Analysts said the nation's traditionally neutral army appeared to be fragmenting.
"How does the president react? This is not an isolated mutiny anymore. It is the president's biggest nightmare," Edward George of the Economist Intelligence Unit told Reuters.
Rajoelina, a former mayor of the capital whose protests have triggered the worst unrest for years and hammered the $390 million (281.5 million pounds) tourism sector, has distanced himself from the mutiny.
U.N. mediator Drame Tiebile said late on Monday that the United Nations had placed the opposition leader under its protection -- although Tiebile added he had been assured by Ravalomanana that his rival would not be arrested.
A French foreign ministry spokesman said the French government had been housing Rajoelina, but that he had now left. Government supporters and opposition protesters threw rocks at each other near the French ambassador's residence on Tuesday.
"The Malagasy authorities were informed of these arrangements, which were approved by President Marc Ravalomanana," spokesman Frederic Desagneaux told reporters.
A diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Rajoelina had left to hold meetings "in town," and that he was likely to head to the U.S. Embassy or residence next.
Rajoelina, a 34-year-old one-time disc jockey, has galvanised widespread anger over the president's failure to alleviate poverty. He has repeatedly called on Ravalomanana to resign, saying he no longer controls the capital or provinces.
The government calls him a maverick troublemaker and accuses him of whipping up public discontent with exaggerated claims.
In a radio and TV address on Tuesday, Ravalomanana, a 59-year-old self-made millionaire who denies being a dictator, said he took responsibility for any mistakes he had made.
"I know that there are people who are furious with me and I understand them. I am ready to listen to you. I promise to take steps to find a solution," the president said.
Church leaders who have been trying to negotiate between the two men are planning three days of talks beginning on Thursday.
Ravalomanana has said he will attend.
An aide to Rajoelina would not say if he would be there, saying the opposition leader had yet to be officially informed.
Madagascar has in recent years opened its doors to major multinationals like Rio Tinto and Sheritt International which plan to extract cobalt, nickel and ilmenite.
(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Port Louis and Francois Murphy in Paris; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Richard Balmforth)
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