(Corrects name of general in para 3 to Randrianazary from Andrianazary)
* Some discussion with rebels but not negotiations
* Military chiefs appear determined to avoid bloodshed
* Early referendum results show “Yes” in strong lead
By Alain Iloniaina
ANTANANARIVO, Nov 18 (Reuters) - An attempt by a handful of dissident troops to take over the government of Madagascar appeared to be foundering on Thursday but their rebellion increased pressure on President Andry Rajoelina to step down.
A 20-strong group of officers announced on Wednesday they had dissolved government institutions and set up a military council to run the country. But by mid-afternoon on Thursday no further actions had been taken and they had not seized the presidential palace as promised.
One military chief, General Randrianazary, said talks between the military and the rebels were going on but that these were not negotiations. “We are asking them not to use their arms, to avoid any clashes,” said Randrianazary.
The rebel ringleader, Colonel Charles Andrianasoavina, reached earlier by telephone in his barbed-wire protected bunker, dismissed reports they were in talks with the government to negotiate a peaceful resolution.
“There are no negotiations. It isn’t us who will make the first steps,” Andrianasoavina told Reuters.
Prime Minister Camille Vital, himself a high-ranking military officer, said on Wednesday the government was ready to crush any revolt and the situation was under control.
But the unrest underscores the depth of internal divisions plaguing the army since Rajoelina drove former leader Marc Ravalomanana into exile last year, political commentators said.
It was not immediately clear whether the armed forces would readily launch an assault on the dissidents and risk a bloody confrontation that could permanently split the military.
Lydie Bokar at political risk consultancy StrategieCo said Rajoelina risked turning his own troops against him if he pushed too hard for a forceful resolution to the crisis.
“Rajoelina will probably survive this storm providing that in the next few hours the army, those that are loyal to him, remain behind him. The next few hours are critical,” she said.
Former President Albert Zafy said he supported the rebels and called on the 36-year-old Rajoelina to quit office. Rajoelina, a boyish-looking former disc jockey, has dismissed the rebels as an irrelevant minority.
Recurring political ructions over the past year have pounded the economy in the world’s fourth largest island, where foreign firms are developing oil, nickel, cobalt and uranium deposits.
The unrest on Wednesday coincided with a referendum on a new draft constitution that would lower the minimum age for a president to 35, allowing Rajoelina to stay in office until elections slated for May 4, 2011, and to run again.
Provisional results from around 1,000 of the more than 18,000 polling stations showed the “Yes” camp well ahead but turnout was just under 50 percent.
Analysts expect the referendum to pass, but say a strong turnout is essential to support Rajoelina’s assertions that he commands the people’s backing.
The ex-mayor of Antananarivo rode to power on the back of protests against Ravalomanana’s increasingly autocratic rule. But Rajoelina’s failure to deliver on populist pledges has eroded his popularity.
With the military top brass quickly falling in line behind him, Rajoelina has seemed unruffled by the attack on his leadership. “This is a military affair. We are still examining exactly what they want,” a general told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
One rebel, General Noel Rakotonandrasana, was sacked as armed forces minister in April after rumours of a planned coup.
France’s foreign ministry said a military coup would only deepen the former French colony’s political crisis.
"Malagasy authorities say they are in control of the situation. It is up to them to resolve this mutiny, with respect to human rights," spokeswoman Christine Fages said. (Additional reporting by Nicolas Vinocur in Paris; writing by Richard Lough; editing by David Clarke and Mark Heinrich) (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com)