Madagascar opposition calls more protests

ANTANANARIVO, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Madagascar’s opposition promised more anti-government protests on Tuesday and looting shook the capital overnight after the worst day of street violence for years on the Indian Ocean island.

Two people died on Monday when demonstrations against President Marc Ravalomanana’s government turned violent, according to witnesses and security sources. Crowds set fire to a state media building and ransacked shops, with a policeman and teenager killed in the chaos and crushes.

Those scenes revived memories of past political volatility on Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island, and will not help the government’s efforts to present the nation as a tourist haven and sound destination for investment in mining and oil.

Angry at the closure of his private TV station and denouncing Ravalomanana as a dictator, Antananarivo’s 34-year-old mayor and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina is leading the demonstrations. He called late on Monday for a resumption of protests on Tuesday in the main square.

But he also urged peaceful demonstrations, and said he would hold talks with the president.

“I have accepted to talk with President Ravalomanana in the presence of ambassadors of countries who give financial support to Madagascar,” he told Radio Antsiva.

“Keep calm because there are those that will profit [from disorder],” he added in an appeal to supporters.

Relations between Ravalomanana, a 59-year-old dairy tycoon in power since 2002, and Rajoelina, deteriorated when authorities shut his Viva television station in December. The president accuses the major of trying to stir a revolt.

Residents of the capital said gangs continued to ransack shops linked to the president, who has a large business empire, under cover of darkness.

“The looting continued through the entire night”, said the city’s police commissioner Francis Randrianantoandro.

“We have arrested 27 people,” he added.

The violence, and possible brewing political crisis, comes as Madagascar is going through an oil and minerals exploration boom. Major foreign companies investing in Madagascar include Rio Tinto RIO.L and Sherritt International S.TO, who plan to extract nickel, bauxite, cobalt and Ilmenite.

Exploration companies are also looking for oil, gold, coal, chrome and uranium.

Madagascar has a long history of volatile politics.

In December 2001, both Ravalomanana and his predecessor Didier Ratsiraka claimed victory in presidential elections.

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.

Residents of Antananarivo fear a return to the political deadlock and economic decline of the early 2000s.

“If there is no dialogue then this will descend into total chaos,” said one opposition supporter, who was unwilling to give his name because of fears of reprisals.

Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne