January 29, 2009 / 9:40 AM / 11 years ago

Madagascar deaths rise to 44, shops heed strike

People walk past a burned furniture store in Malagasy, Antananarivo January 28, 2009. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters protested against the president in Madagascar's capital on Wednesday, two days after an earlier rally descended into violence that killed nearly 40 people. REUTERS/Rasoanaivo Clarel Faniry

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Authorities in Madagascar said on Thursday the death toll from this week’s unrest had risen to 44, and most businesses in the capital heeded a call by the opposition to stay shut as an anti-government protest.

“There are 44 bodies in the city morgue,” Antananarivo’s commander of police, Colonel Frederic Raqotonandrasana, told Reuters. “Thirty four are severely burned and families are in the process of trying to identify them.”

Most of those killed were suspected looters caught when a three-storey clothes store went up in flames after an opposition demonstration on Monday degenerated into violence.

Opposition protests against President Marc Ravalomanana’s government since the weekend have created a political crisis on the Indian Ocean island and brought the worst scenes of street violence for years.

The unrest, on the world’s fourth largest island, is marring its image as a tourist haven and a secure environment for foreign firms to carry out oil and minerals exploration.

The opposition, led by Antananarivo mayor Andry Rajoelina, is demanding that Ravalomanana step down to make way for a transitional government. He accuses the president of turning Madagascar into a dictatorship.

With the army on the streets, and the smell of burned buildings still filling the air, residents formed long queues outside the few stores still open to try to stock up on essentials such as oil and rice.

Reporting by Alain Iloniaina, and Richard Lough in Mauritius; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne

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