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Madagascar's leader rejects opposition ultimatum

world Updated: Mar 15, 2009 13:40 IST

AP
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Madagascar's opposition chief emerged from two weeks of hiding to declare himself president, setting up another showdown with the country's increasingly isolated leader, who defied demands to resign.

Embattled President Marc Ravalomanana prevailed the first time the two men tangled, but now his power base has disappeared against an opposition that is promising elections within two years on this island off southeastern Africa known for its wildlife and eco-tourism, but also its widespread poverty and political unrest. On Saturday, Ravalomanana - a master of political infighting - refused to quit, even though he has lost the support of much of the military.

"I am still president," Ravalomanana, 49, declared outside the presidential palace to a crowd of some 2,000 supporters, many wielding bars and sticks.

But in another part of the capital, opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, 34, set a deadline of just a few hours for Ravalomanana to dissolve the government and give up the leadership of this poor Indian Ocean island of 20 million people. The opposition also moved without resistance into the empty offices of the less powerful prime minister and named someone to replace him.

More than 100 people have been killed since demonstrations first erupted in Madagascar in January. There was a tense calm Saturday, after sporadic looting earlier in the week, and the military did not intervene.

On Thursday, the opposition proclaimed its own commander in chief of the armed forces without any resistance, and said the next day that it had gained control of tanks, prompting the president to go on national radio to warn against any assassination attempts. "There is only one solution. The resignation of Marc Ravalomanana," Rajoelina told a crowd of about 10,000 jubilant demonstrators on Saturday in his first public appearance since he went into hiding at the French Embassy two weeks ago fearing arrest. It is the second time Rajoelina, a former disc jockey who became mayor of the capital, has declared himself president. The first time Ravalomanana prevailed, as he also had in a struggle with a rival in 2001 that left the island divided with two presidents, two governments and two capitals for six months.

Rajoelina accuses Ravalomanana, a wealthy businessman, of misuse of funds, abuse of power and turning a blind eye to the plight of his 20 million strong population. But critics say the young opposition leader is a rabble rouser with little interest in good governance.

Ravalomanana issued a statement saying that the opposition did not have "the power bestowed by democratic elections." He said, "This movement is and remains a street protest which uses terror and repression to survive. A self-proclamation does not equate to legitimate power."

The president said he continued to recognize his own prime minister and not the opposition's choice.

Church-mediated talks failed to get off the ground last week, despite pleas from the international community and the United Nations that donor funding will depend on reaching a political settlement to the grievances.

Rajoelina said earlier he hoped the handover would be peaceful, seeking to ease the president's fears that he would be assassinated. "I have clean hands. I have no intention of killing him (Ravalomanana). I have no intention of sending in tanks and soldiers," said Rajoelina

Opposition supporters with a military escort entered the existing prime minister's office Saturday without meeting any resistance and proclaimed Monja Roindefo Zafitsimivalo as his replacement. They said the "high authority of transition" presided over by Rajoelina would "assume the functions of the president of the republic" and promised new elections within two years. "The president of the republic can no longer exercise the functions given to him by the constitution. The president can no longer assure the unity of the armed forces and can no longer be considered as commander in chief of the armed forces," their statement said. "The public authority is incapable of protecting the population and its property. National sovereignty is menaced." At Saturday's opposition rally, the head of the national assembly who was formerly a close ally of Ravalomanana also urged the president to quit.