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Embattled president defiant, ready for referendum

Video by Cyril VANIER , Virginie HERZ

Latest update : 2009-03-16

A day after opposition chief Andry Rajoelina called on him to “humbly resign,” Madagascar’s President Marc Ravalomanana said he would not quit and was ready to face a “referendum if necessary”.

AFP - Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana said Sunday he is ready to hold a referendum to settle a months-long deadly stand-off with a rival leader on the Indian Ocean island.

"I remain in power. I have no fear of a referendum if necessary," he told 5,000 of his supporters gathered outside the presidential palace moments after telling reporters he would "never" bow to calls to quit office.

Ravalomanana was accompanied by a plain-clothes armed guard -- while his rival Andry Rajoelina, guarded by troops, led prayers at a separate religious service in the centre of Antananarivo attended by 3,000 of his backers.

Madagascar's opposition claimed to have toppled the government and taken control of the army Saturday, calling on Ravalomanana to "humbly leave power in the next four hours" as his side promised fresh elections.

However, asked his intentions by the press as he emerged to greet supporters at an open-air religious service Sunday, Ravalomanana said of opposition leader Andry Rajoelina's demand that he relinquish power: "That, never!"

The army said Saturday it would not intervene in the tussle but chief of staff Colonel Andre Andriarijaona said his forces could end up supporting the opposition "if it would restore calm" to the country of 20 million people.

Ravalomanana was accompanied by a plain-clothes armed guard as he sat down to pray -- while Rajoelina, guarded by troops, also led prayers at a separate service in the centre of Antananarivo attended by 3,000 of his backers.

At the latter service, 12 kilometres (eight miles) away in the main square at the centre of his campaign for power, Rajoelina's acolytes, dressed all in white, prayed for an "end to the darkness" and a "return of light."

As Saturday's deadline expired, the embattled president Ravalomanana -- whose term is due to run until 2011 -- accused Rajoelina of mounting "a street protest which uses terror and repression to survive."

About 1,000 Ravalomanana supporters set up barricades around a park surrounding the presidential palace Saturday, armed with batons but clearly nervous.

The power grab by the opposition, which has accused Ravalomanana of running a dictatorship, came after the president acknowledged making mistakes during the crisis.

Rajoelina, an ex-DJ and former mayor of the capital under UN protection since evading arrest last week, set up a parallel administration last month as part of his strategy to destabilise the government.

The head of that parallel cabinet, Roindefo Zafitsimivalo Monja, spoke to reporters from the official prime minister's office Saturday after the opposition took control of the building, accompanied by around 30 soldiers.

"The army no longer takes its orders from the president of the republic," Rajoelina has said. "It is I who commands the army today. They receive orders from Andry Rajoelina, and not only in Antananarivo, but throughout Madagascar."

More than 100 people have been killed in the unrest since the start of the year.

Last month, the presidential guard opened fire on opposition protesters marching on one of Ravalomanana's offices, killing 28 and wounding some 200. The carnage drew international condemnation and caused deep dismay among the security establishment on the vast Indian Ocean island.

Date created : 2009-03-15