ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Firefighters found 25 charred bodies in a looted department store in Madagascar’s capital on Tuesday, a day after some of the worst anti-government violence in years on the Indian Ocean island.
Antananarivo’s 34-year-old mayor and opposition leader, Andry Rajoelina, called for peaceful demonstrations in the city’s main square against President Marc Ravalomanana’s government on Wednesday.
On Monday tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, burning the state-owned television and radio station.
A teenager and a policeman were killed in the violence, which revived memories of past political volatility on Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island.
“I can confirm we have found 25 bodies. They are burned beyond recognition and will be hard to identify,” a senior fire officer told Reuters.
Angry at the closure of his private TV station, Rajoelina has denounced Ravalomanana as a dictator.
“The protests will restart tomorrow at the 13th May Square,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “There will be no meeting nor dialogue (with the president).”
France, which controlled Madagascar from the late 19th century until independence in 1960, called on the Malagasy authorities to show restraint.
“He underlined France’s attachment to legality and constitutional order and called for national unity, urging restraint and dialogue by all parties so they can find a peaceful and lasting solution,” Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s office said of his conversation with Ravalomanana.
Relations between Ravalomanana, a 59-year-old dairy businessman in power since 2002, and Rajoelina, deteriorated when authorities shut his Viva television station in December. The president accuses the mayor of trying to stir up a revolt.
Residents of the capital said gangs had ransacked shops linked to the president overnight.
Madagascar is going through an oil and minerals exploration boom. Major foreign companies investing in Madagascar include Rio Tinto and Sherritt International, which plan to extract nickel, bauxite, cobalt and Ilmenite.
Exploration companies are also looking for oil, gold, coal, chrome and uranium.
Madagascar has a history of volatile politics.
In December 2001, both Ravalomanana and his predecessor Didier Ratsiraka claimed victory in a presidential election.
Eight months of political instability and sporadic violence followed before a court upheld Ravalomanana’s victory. Ratsirika fled to France where he remains in exile.
“The president has little room for maneuver. It is he who must make concessions because he lacks popularity,” said Jean-Eric Rakotoarisoa, law lecturer at the University of Antananarivo. “What we need is for this government to resign and a transitional government to be established.”
Residents of Antananarivo fear a return to the political deadlock and economic decline of the early 2000s.
“If there is no dialogue, this will descend into total chaos,” said one opposition supporter, unwilling to give his name because of fears of reprisals.
(Additional reporting by Anna Willard in Paris)
Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Elizabeth Piper