November 19, 2010 / 6:27 AM / 9 years ago

Madagascar authorities in talks with rebels

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Madagascar’s army chief held talks on Friday with a group of rebel military officers who had threatened two days earlier to topple the government and set up a ruling military council.

Chief of staff General Andre Ndriarijoana visited the dissident officers in their barracks near the international airport for about two hours but left after discussions without making a statement.

Armed Forces Minister Lucien Rakotoarimasy told Reuters the talks were continuing even though the general had left the camp. A rebel officer inside the barracks confirmed this.

The security forces later fired teargas to disperse crowds gathering near the barracks.

President Andry Rajoelina’s government said on Wednesday it would crush any rebellion but so far no action has been taken against the dissidents. Some political analysts have warned that a confrontation could permanently split the military.

The unrest in the world’s fourth largest island underscores the depth of internal divisions plaguing the army since Rajoelina drove former leader Marc Ravalomanana into exile last year, political commentators said.

Analysts said the coup plotters may have overestimated their support among the military, but there was still a risk that Ravalomanana and other former presidents opposed to Rajoelina could foment wider unrest.

“This could still have a bloody ending, though of a limited firefight variety in all likelihood,” said Philippe de Pontet, Africa director at Eurasia Group.

“If former leaders such as the ousted — and generally investment-friendly — President Marc Ravalomanana and his predecessor Didier Ratsiraka, manage to activate a broader uprising, there is a risk of deeper instability in the short term, but we see this risk as about a 25 percent possibility.”

AVOID CONFRONTATION

Minister Rakotoarimasy had earlier on Friday warned civilians in the dissidents’ camp and nearby residents to leave the area. Schools near the barracks on the outskirts of the capital were evacuated.

“Something is not quite right. We must avoid a confrontation so brothers in arms don’t kill each other. The negotiations continue,” he said when asked if an assault was planned.

The unrest on Wednesday coincided with a referendum on a new draft constitution that would lower the minimum age for a president to 35, allowing Rajoelina to stay in office until elections slated for May 4, 2011, and to run again.

The former mayor of Antananarivo rode to power on the back of protests against Ravalomanana’s increasingly autocratic rule. But Rajoelina’s failure to deliver on populist pledges has eroded his popularity.

Another former president, Albert Zafy, said on Thursday he supported the rebels and called on the 36-year-old Rajoelina to quit office. Rajoelina, a boyish-looking former disc jockey, has dismissed the rebels as an irrelevant minority.

Recurring political ructions over the past year have pounded the economy in the world’s fourth largest island, where foreign firms are developing oil, nickel, cobalt and uranium deposits.

Lydie Bokar at political risk consultancy StrategieCo said on Thursday that Rajoelina risked turning his own troops against him if he pushed too hard for a forceful end to the crisis.

“Rajoelina will probably survive this storm providing that in the next few hours the army, those that are loyal to him, remain behind him. The next few hours are critical,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Siphiwe Sibeko; Editing by David Clarke and Philippa Fletcher)

For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://af.reuters.com

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