March 16, 2009 / 5:52 PM / 11 years ago

Army storms Madagascar presidential palace

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Tanks and troops took control of a presidential palace in the center of Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo on Monday after the military joined opposition leader Andry Rajoelina in his power struggle with President Marc Ravalomanana.

Soldiers take position after two tanks forced their way into a presidential palace in Antananarivo, March 16, 2009. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The president was not in the building but was sheltering in another palace about 10 kms (6 miles) away. He had resisted growing pressure to resign over the crisis in the Indian Ocean island in which at least 135 people have been killed.

Gunfire and explosions rang out as tanks burst into the palace grounds but there was apparently little resistance, Reuters witnesses said.

Soon after, two tanks were parked outside the palace’s main steps and soldiers walked around the grounds. A third tank was stationed outside the palace compound.

Opposition leader Rajoelina had called earlier for the security forces to arrest Ravalomanana, who had offered a referendum on whether he should stay.

The army has traditionally remained neutral during periods of political volatility since independence from France in 1960.

But Colonel Andre Ndriarijaona told a news conference on Monday: “If Andry Rajoelina can resolve the problem, we are behind him.”

He was flanked by senior military police and national police officials.

Christine Razanamahasoa, appointed minister of justice in Rajoelina’s parallel administration, earlier said she was ordering prosecutors to arrest the president.

Prior to the storming of the palace, the African Union condemned what it called an attempted coup by the opposition and urged the people of Madagascar to respect the constitution.

“The situation in Madagascar is an internal conflict. It is an attempted coup d’etat. We condemn the attempted coup d’etat,” Edouard Alo-Glele, Benin’s envoy to Ethiopia, said after an emergency meeting of the AU’s Peace and Security Council.

PUBLIC DISCONTENT

Rajoelina, 34, a former disc jockey who was sacked as Antananarivo’s mayor last month, says Ravalomanana is an autocrat running the island like a private company.

The president’s supporters call Rajoelina a troublemaker bent on seizing power illegally.

Soldiers take position after two tanks forced their way into a presidential palace in Antananarivo, March 16, 2009. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

While Rajoelina has tapped into widespread public discontent, especially with high levels of poverty, many inhabitants are fed up with the unrest.

The $390 million-a-year tourism sector is nosediving, and foreign investors in the important mining and oil exploration sectors are watching events nervously.

The United Nations has sent Tiebile Drame, Mali’s former foreign minister, to mediate.

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