March 9, 2009 / 12:47 PM / 10 years ago

Madagascar threatens action against rebel soldiers

(Adds comments from colonel and analyst, details of protest)

By Alain Iloniaina

ANTANANARIVO, March 9 (Reuters) - Madagascar’s government said on Monday it would take "military measures" against mutinying soldiers who have deepened a political crisis on the Indian Ocean island.

Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, whose protests against President Marc Ravalomanana have triggered Madagascar’s worst civil unrest for years, remained in hiding for a third day.

At least 30 dissident troops who set up defences outside their camp against a rumoured attack by the presidential guard said on Sunday that they were part of a larger rebel group.

One rebel colonel told reporters on Monday that 75 percent of the army were supporting the dissidents, but there was no way to confirm that independently.

Defence Minister Mamy Ranaivoniarivo said it would be necessary to take "military measures within the army", but his statement did not specify what action might be taken. Antananarivo remained peaceful.

"At the heart of the current crisis is a political problem. This needs a political solution," Ranaivoniarivo said. "The military should not be manipulated and divided by this crisis."

About 600 military personnel are based at Camp Capsat, outside the capital. It was unclear if just one group or all of them were mutinying.

The dissidents said the killing of civilian protesters was unacceptable, and that they would no longer take orders.

About 135 people have died in this year’s unrest, which has hammered Madagascar’s $390 million-a-year tourism sector.

"Seventy-five percent of soldiers are with us," Colonel Noel Rakotonandrasa told a news conference at Camp Capsat, flanked by several other high-ranking officers.



"COULD SPREAD QUICKLY"

"I think this is very serious," said Lydie Boka, chief Madagascar analyst at the French risk group StrategieCo.

"It may just be a small number out of 12,000 or 13,000 troops, but if it reaches the lower ranks it could spread very quickly."

The crisis began at the start of this year and has rocked the island, which needs tourism and foreign investment in exploration of its vast oil and mineral reserves to drive economic growth.

Many Malagasy people say the benefits of growth under Ravalomanana have not trickled down to them. Rajoelina, a 34-year-old former disc jockey turned firebrand politician, has tapped into that frustration.

Ravalomanana, a 59-year-old dairy tycoon, calls Rajoelina a troublemaker. The opposition leader left his house three days ago, fearing action against him.

His movement called for another anti-government demonstration on Monday in Antananarivo’s central May 13 square.

By mid-morning, several hundred people had gathered in the square — the epicentre for previous popular revolts since Madagascar won its independence from France in 1972 — with no visible sign of security forces.

Analysts say the stance of Madagascar’s military, which has generally stayed neutral during previous political turmoil, will be pivotal to the final outcome of the power struggle.

The presidential guard was criticised last month for shooting dead 28 protesters marching on the presidential palace.

In February, an army general said the armed forces were "ready to fulfil their duties" if the crisis was not resolved. (Additional reporting by Daniel Wallis in Nairobi; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Kevin Liffey)







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