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Fragile calm in Madagascar capital

world Updated: Jan 31, 2009 12:53 IST

Peretty Miriama ekes out a living selling handmade greeting cards to tourists on this Indian Ocean island paradise where buildings went up in flames during this week's anti-government rioting in the capital.

The violence caught her and her husband by surprise. A homeless couple, they hid their precious stock of souvenirs but when they went back, the cards were gone.

"It's not been good," a dazed Miriama said on Friday while leaning against a tree. "We're poor. Always poor."

At least 43 people were killed in unrest which began Monday when protesters set the government broadcasting complex ablaze, along with an oil depot, shopping mall and a private TV station linked to President Marc Ravalomanana.

The protests were sparked by government's decision that day to close a radio station, owned by the capital's mayor, Andry Rajoelina. He accuses Ravalomanana's government of misspending funds and threatening democracy.

By Friday the violence had subsided. But Rajoelina has called for another anti-government rally on Saturday, and that has left many people bracing for the possibility of more violence. For two days police had battled to control looters who roamed the streets of the capital. Tourists were advised to stay in their hotels. Most of the casualties were people caught up in the chaos or trapped in burning buildings. By Friday, the violence had subsided. "Business has been bad this week," said Fula Bao who sells pink garnets at her roadside stall. "Even foreigners aren't stopping much at the moment."

Madagascar, off Africa's southeast coast, is known for its rare wildlife and eco-tourism, but also for its history of political unrest and infighting.

It is one of Africa's poorest nations, with more than half the population living on less than $1 per day. Ravalomanana clashed with former President Didier Ratsiraka when both claimed the presidency after a disputed December 2001 election. After low-level fighting split the country between two governments, two capitals and two presidents, Ratsiraka fled to France in June 2002.

Ravalomanana won re-election in 2006, though two opposition candidates tried to challenge the validity of the vote. On Thursday, Ravalomanana made a conciliatory gesture and promised to put the mayor's radio station back on the air. There are calls for dialogue between the two men to resolve differences. Rajoelina says he has the military's support and is ready to take over an interim government. But the constitution requires a president be at least 40, and Rajoelina is 34.

Many are surprised at the extent of support Rajoelina has drummed up, and the speed at which it turned violent.

The sight of fires burning through the night and reports of gun battles between police and protesters on the fringes of the city have shaken a nation desperate for stability.

In Antananarivo's main hospital, Vololona Ralison was in charge of counting the number of dead bodies and calling for their families to come forward. Many of the corpses were burned beyond recognition.

"I've never seen this in my life," Ralison told the Associated Press. "I hope so much this nightmare is ended." On the streets of the capital Friday, there were signs of life returning to normal.

White-shirted traffic officers were back at their posts and newspaper sellers were doing brisk business. A week ago, the west coast of the island had been hit by a powerful cyclone that killed 12 people and left 4,000 homeless. Now the people of Madagascar are hoping Saturday's protest is peaceful and that their lives return to normal.