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Police clash with looters as political rivals pursue talks

Police fired over crowds of looters on Thursday and arrested about 20 people, officials said, with no immediate reports of casualties. Madagascar's political parties remain in talks aimed at ending the unrest that has claimed nearly 100 lives.

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Madagascan troops fired their weapons over the heads of young crowds of rioters late on Thursday as rival leaders continued negotiations on the unrest that has claimed nearly 100 lives, officials said.

   
"Soldiers fired into the air to disperse adolescents who had come together for a looting spree," regional administrator for the south-western city of Toliara, Samueline Raheliarosoa, told AFP by telephone.

"There have been about 20 arrests," she added without being able to say whether any of the youths were hit or injured in the melee.

 

Madagascar's political rivals bagan talks on Wednesday aimed at ending the unrest that has paralysed the Indian Ocean island and claimed nearly 100 lives, a French envoy said Thursday.

Representatives of President Marc Ravalomanana and his rival Andry Rajoelina opened negotiations on Wednesday, the envoy, Alain Joyandet, said.

"The dialogue is on since yesterday. Delegations are working. The negotiations are being conducted by Church leaders who are very important here," said Joyandet, France's Secretary of State for Cooperation.

Joyandet, who is part of an Indian Ocean Commission delegation to the Madagascan crisis, has already held separate talks with Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, who has accused the president of being a dictator.

At least 28 people were killed on Saturday when presidential guards opened fire on opposition demonstrators as they attempted to march to the presidential palace, in an incident that drew international condemnation.

Another 68 people were killed in protests last month, many when shops they were looting collapsed.

"We have a feeling that each -- Ravalomanana and Rajoelina -- will work to see that this crisis ends without sparking another grave incident like the one on Saturday," Joyandet said.

"At the moment we have heard of the need to improve the social and economic situation of Madasgascans and it is important that this crisis ends," he added.

The delegations comprise three members from either side and had previously met earlier this month, a source close to the talks said on condition of anonymity.

In a show of strength, Ravalomanana's party organised a rally Wednesday in the capital attended by thousands of supporters on a day Rajoelina had called for a general strike.

But addressing some 5,000 supporters, Rajoelina accused his rival of ferrying supporters by trucks and buses to the capital and paying off.

"What is earned today is spent today," said Rajoelina, who last week unveiled a rival government and installed himself as leader in a drive to oust Ravalomanana.

At the same gathering, his "prime minister" Monja Roindefonamed named four more "ministers" to their administration, joining others appointed earlier in the week.

The opposition movement led by the 34-year-old former Antananarivo mayor  has been fuelled by discontent over widespread poverty and shrinking freedoms blamed on the government.

While both sides have accepted the principle of talks, Rajoelina has vowed to continue his struggle and conditioned a dialogue on the creation of a transition government or the promise of fresh presidential polls.

However, Joyandet said the foes pledged not to "take steps that will cause violence and more deaths."

He explained that Ravalomanana was willing to reconsider an arrest warrant against Rajoelina, who in turn pledged not to call on supporters to march to government offices.

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