March 14, 2009 / 12:58 PM / in 11 years

Opposition deadline nears for Madagascan leader to go

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Madagascar’s opposition leader Andry Rajoelina emerged from hiding on Saturday to tell thousands of his supporters he was giving President Marc Ravalomanana four hours to step down.

Madagascar's opposition leader Andry Rajoelina greets his supporters during a rally in Antananarivo March 14, 2009. Rajoelina told thousands of his supporters in the capital on Saturday he was giving President Marc Ravalomanana four hours to resign. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko (MADAGASCAR POLITICS HEADSHOT CONFLICT IMAGE OF THE DAY TOP PICTURE)

Rajoelina told a rally in the central square of the capital Antananarivo he was ready for a democratic handover of power on the Indian Ocean island and would go to the presidential palace to bid Ravalomanana goodbye.

“We will wait four hours,” Rajoelina said. “The hands of Andry Rajoelina are clean. I don’t intend to kill him ... I don’t want to send tanks and soldiers to the palace.”

Flanked by tight security, he made a ‘V’ for victory sign before issuing his ultimatum to the supporters thronging the square that has been the epicentre of previous uprisings.

The political crisis has been running since the beginning of 2009, killing more than 135 people, damaging Madagascar’s image as a sound destination for foreign investment and crippling the island’s $390 million a year tourist industry.

With minutes left to the deadline there were no signs of any opposition demonstrators or military going to the palace, which is some 10 kms (6 miles) from the city centre. Instead, there were thousands of presidential supporters blocking the road.

The divided army is increasingly looking to be the arbiter of power in Madagascar and Ravalomanana’s supporters said they had been told to step aside if soldiers came to the palace.

“We are here to say to the world that we are behind our democratically elected president. Why bring the government down?” said Robertine Rassoamalala, 59, a retired resident.

“We’ve had orders to clear the road if the military arrive. We are not human shields,” she told Reuters.

Rajoelina, 34, a former disc jockey, had been under U.N. protection since fleeing attempts to arrest him last week. He calls the president a dictator and has tapped into deep public resentment at Ravalomanana’s failure to tackle poverty.

ARMY KEY

Earlier, opposition members seized control of the prime minister’s office, declared they had assumed the powers of the presidency and pledged to hold elections within two years.

An aide to the president said the opposition had no legal authority and that Ravalomanana remained in his palace.

“This is and remains until now a street protest, using fear and repression to survive,” the aide, who declined to be named, said. “It is unclear right now whether the whole of the army is behind the opposition. The president is still at Iavoloha (presidential palace).”

Ravalomanana has called on the security forces to restore law and order and said an attempt on his life would compromise the country’s development. There was a heavy military presence on the streets on Saturday, but the opposition rally passed off peacefully.

Several opposition demonstrations have ended in violence after the security forces stepped in.

Ravalomanana has come under growing pressure to go. Dissidents in the army have called upon him to resign, although they have ruled out installing a military junta.

Rebel troops ousted the former chief of staff a day after he issued the island’s feuding leaders a three-day ultimatum to end the impasse or face a military intervention. The soldiers said they had hidden tanks in the capital as precautionary tactic.

European Union mission head Jean-Claude Boidin told Reuters any “non-constitutional” solution to the political impasse — meaning a coup — would lead to a suspension of aid.

Madagascar’s capital, a city of faded French grandeur perched on steep slopes, is one of Africa’s poorest where many live without electricity or running water and eke out a grim existence on less than two dollars a day.

Caught in the middle of the crisis is an increasingly weary population. Some fear a Rajoelina takeover would not be the end.

“It’s not over yet. The U.N. won’t accept this because the president’s mandate still has three years to run. Nor will the president accept easily,” said student Sitraka Andriananson.

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