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Blast, firing as Madagascar soldiers storm mutineers' base

Gun shots and an explosion were heard Saturday as Madagascan troops stormed an army base where dissident officers who declared a coup three days ago have been holed up, an AFP reporter witnessed.

world Updated: Nov 20, 2010 20:56 IST

Gun shots and an explosion were heard Saturday as Madagascan troops stormed an army base where dissident officers who declared a coup three days ago have been holed up, an AFP reporter witnessed.

At least 50 soldiers, armed with rifles and some in hoods, positioned themselves on the perimeter wall of the barracks with more behind army trucks outside the base.

"Loyal forces are storming into the camp to neutralise the mutineers," an officer at the scene told AFP. "The officers (mutineers) have given themselves up. It is some junior soldiers who are firing back."

Around 20 soldiers, who declared Wednesday that all government institutions were suspended and a military council was in charge, have been holed up at the camp about 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the capital Antananarivo.

It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties from the operation.

Negotiations have been going on between the authorities and the dissidents who insisted Saturday they would not relent in seeking an end to the country's political paralysis since a March 2009 coup.

"At the moment the best solution is to not reconcile with the authorities. The essential thing is to change what is wrong in the country," said Noel Rakotonandrasana, the leader of the renegade officers.

The army chief Andre Ndriarijaona held talks Friday with the officers and urged for calm.

Wednesday's coup declaration had not been supported by the rest of the army and business in Antananarivo has gone on uninterrupted.

Madagascar has been mired in a political crisis since last year's coup when then opposition leader Andry Rajoelina toppled president Marc Ravalomanana with the army's support.

General Rakotonandrasana himself played a critical role in the coup following which he was named the armed forces minister.

But he was later dismissed from the post on suspicion of plotting against the current regime.

"We should opt for the creation of a committee to steer towards the right direction and good governance," the general told AFP by phone earlier Saturday.

He vowed they would pursue their bid "to the end."

The United States condemned the take-over bid and urged dialogue.

"The United States strongly condemns all efforts to take or maintain power through the use of force," the US embassy here said in a statement.

"We have consistently called for a consensual, inclusive political process to resolve the ongoing crisis through constitutional means and have called on all parties to refrain from actions that might result in violence."

Rajoelina has been isolated by the international community and the African Union suspended it and imposed sanctions on him and his backers for failing to honour accords to end the crisis.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warned that Madagascar was in a "severe danger of social explosion."