ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - The United States is encouraging diplomats and citizens to leave Madagascar and U.N.-brokered talks scheduled for Thursday to mediate in the Indian Ocean island’s political crisis have been postponed.
The world’s fourth largest island has slid into crisis due to a power struggle between the president and opposition that has killed at least 135 people in unrest and left it unclear who is controlling the government and sections of the military.
U.S. Ambassador Niels Marquardt, who said on Wednesday that Madagascar was “on the verge of civil war,” had offered staff voluntary evacuation, sources at the mission told Reuters.
“He has very strongly encouraged us to leave if we feel uncomfortable,” said one senior official, who was planning to fly out with relatives on Friday.
A warden message by the embassy said: “We encourage all Americans in Madagascar to monitor the situation closely and consider departing the country while commercial air is still operating normally.”
It was unclear just how many U.S. citizens were preparing to leave, and there was no indication that other foreign nationals were following suit to quit Madagascar.
Mediators had hoped to bring President Marc Ravalomanana and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina together on Thursday for face-to-face talks to end the chaos that is hammering a $390 million-a-year tourism industry and spooking foreign investors.
But Rajoelina, who has been under U.N. protection since fleeing attempts to arrest him last week, refused to attend.
“Today’s dialogue has been postponed because we have met last minute problems,” U.N. mediator Drame Tiebile told Reuters, giving no more details.
Rajoelina, 34, a baby-faced former disc jockey, has tapped into a deep vein of public anger at Ravalomanana’s failure to tackle poverty. He calls the president a dictator and has tried to establish a parallel administration.
Critics call Rajoelina a maverick and troublemaker, and analysts are unsure he may have over-played his hand or is riding on a popular wave that could carry him to power.
The political crisis, which has been running since the start of 2009, has intensified in recent days as Ravalomanana appears to have lost control of the traditionally neutral armed forces.
On Wednesday, the leader of a widening mutiny within the army appointed himself chief of staff, ousting Madagascar’s top general who had given the political rivals 72 hours -- until Friday -- to find a solution or face army intervention.
“The army’s chief, who pronounced the ultimatum, has been replaced so we are not sure now what its value is,” European Union mission head Jean-Claude Boidin told Reuters.
The envoy said no EU staff were leaving Madagascar yet. He said any “non-constitutional” solution to the political impasse -- meaning a coup -- would lead to a suspension of aid.
“It is not a possibility, it is the rule according to the Cotonou (aid) agreement,” Boidin said.
Rajoelina’s camp appeared to endorse the army mutineers for the first time late on Wednesday. “Madagascar’s security forces have taken responsibility, not wanting to disgrace their military honor through acts of repression,” it said.
Shops along the capital Antananarivo’s May 13 Plaza -- the epicenter of popular revolts since Madagascar won independence from France in 1960 -- stayed shut as nervous residents awaited developments. Usually traffic-choked streets were quiet.
“What worries me is if the president brings in outside mercenaries to protect himself since the army no longer listens to him,” said pro-opposition driver Rivo Rasandratra. “The security forces would never accept it. Then we have a problem.”
Additional reporting by Alain Iloniaina; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne