A group of senior military officers declared a takeover of power in Madagascar on Wednesday as the island voted on a new draft constitution, but the country's military leadership vowed to crush any rebellion.
"If there is a mutiny, we have to intervene. We cannot negotiate with someone who mutinies," Military Police General Andrianazary told Reuters by telephone after an emergency meeting of top military leaders in the prime minister's office. Rebel Colonel Charles Andrianasoavina said earlier at a barracks near the airport on the outskirts of the capital that a "military council for the welfare of the people" had been formed to run the world's fourth largest island.
Colonel Andrianasoavina was one of the main backers of President Andry Rajoelina's power-grab in March last year when he toppled Marc Ravalomanana. Another senior officer behind Rajoelina then was also in the rebellious group.
"It's a war of communiques for now but things could degenerate quickly," said Madagascar expert Lydie Bokar of the Lille-based political risk consultancy StrategieCo.
The country's military has suffered from rifts since the 2009 coup. A group of dissident military police briefly seized control of a military camp in May, before being quashed by the security forces.
A Reuters witness said it was calm outside the presidential palace in the city's centre. Members of the security forces have been on the streets monitoring voting in the referendum, which is seen as a test of confidence in Rajoelina's leadership.
Prime Minister General Camille Vital was expected to make a statement shortly.
Voters cast their ballots peacefully at more than 18,000 polling stations which were due to close at 1300 GMT but were to remain open until 1500 GMT because of delays caused by issues with some voter lists.
"I just voted because I would like to see changes when it comes to governance. If I had not voted, then there would be no changes. Whether you vote yes or no, you are already on your way to find a solution," said Aha Randriamahefa in the capital.
Rajoelina scrapped the old constitution after ousting unpopular leader Ravalomanana with military backing, creating turmoil on the island targeted by foreign investors for its oil, nickel, cobalt and uranium deposits.
International mediators brokered a series of power sharing agreements between Rajoelina, Ravalomanana and two other former presidents, but they all collapsed in bickering over the allocation of ministerial posts.
The three main opposition parties, each headed by one of the former presidents, are boycotting the vote.
A senior political ally of former President Albert Zafy said the opposition leader had called on the military to "assume their responsibilities" given the political impasse, without overtly calling for a takeover.
"I understand that these officers seem to have acted that way," said Zafy ally Emmanuel Rakotovahiny.
The new constitution lowers the minimum age for a president by five years to 35, which would regularise 36-year-old Rajoelina's rule and allow him to renege on a previous pledge that he will not contest the next vote slated for May 4, 2011.
The proposed law also sets no deadline for presidential elections, which critics say could allow Rajoelina to remain indefinitely at the helm of the country brought to fame by its lemurs and the DreamWorks animation film "Madagascar". Africa's youngest leader, Rajoelina rose to power on wave of popular support, galvanising widespread anger over Ravalomanana's increasingly autocratic style of leadership.
But some analysts say Rajoelina's failure to end the leadership squabbles and deliver on populist pledges made during his campaign to topple Ravalomanana have eroded his popularity.
Tensions have risen in the capital in the run up to the vote, with sporadic skirmishes between police and opposition supporters after the government banned public meetings.
Political observers are tilting towards a win for the "Yes" camp. However, they say a low turnout, especially in the capital, would be a blow for Rajoelina and do little to remove doubts about the legitimacy of his rule.
"I won't vote. Whether 'Yes' or 'No' wins, nothing will change and the crisis will persist," said opposition supporter Michel Andrianirina.