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Political rivals hold talks

Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina (pictured) met for talks on Saturday after weeks of demonstrations aimed at toppling the government, the opposition said.

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AFP - Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana and political rival Andry Rajoelina met Saturday, agreeing to tone down their stand-off after weeks of violent demonstrations against the government.

The meeting aimed to "facilitate future dialogue" on the crisis and was marked by "respect, cordiality and calm" on both sides, a short statement issued by the influential Council of Christian Churches in Madagascar (FFKM) said.

It said the two rivals accepted an agenda of five commitments -- to end provocative statements in the media, to end the spreading of false information, to stop violence and looting, to call no more public meetings and to put an end to "arrests of a political nature."

A participant at the meeting, who asked not to be named, said full-fledged political discussions between the two sides could start as early as next week.

FFKM, a group of two Catholic and two Protestant churches, organised the 45 minute meeting at the offices of Antananarivo's bishop.

Nearly 100 people have died in unrest that erupted late January when 34-year-old Rajoelina presided over a wave of anti-government protests on the Indian Ocean island after he was sacked as mayor of the capital.

Rajoelina told his supporters earlier Saturday that he would meet Ravalomanana whom he has accused of leading a dictatorship while his people starve.

"I am not afraid of meeting him. I will bring the voice of the people to the meeting," Rajoelina told around 10,000 people gathered in the city centre.

Security forces on Friday re-took control of four ministries briefly occupied by Rajoelina's supporters as part of an effort to replace Ravalomanana's government with a rival "national transition council."

The symbolic take-over of the ministries was the most daring move yet by the opposition since the crisis erupted on January 26 when Rajoelina, 34, launched a wave of anti-government protests.

In his first public appearance last week since the unrest erupted, Ravalomanana vowed to see out his term which runs to the end of 2011.

Ravalomanana's government drew international condemnation after security forces opened fire on protestors on February 7, killing 28 of them.

Rajoelina has emerged as the undisputed leader of Madagascar's opposition, building support on widespread popular grievances over poverty and violations of civil liberties.

Ravalomanana and his younger rival have been at odds since the mayor's election in 2007 but their tug-of-war worsened in December when authorities shut Rajoelina's TV network for airing an interview with former president Didier Ratsiraka.

Madagascar has been plagued by political unrest in the past. It suffered some of its worst violence after the 2001 presidential elections when then president Ratsiraka refused to accept defeat by Ravalomanana.

The United Nations, African Union and the regional grouping Southern African Development Community have sent envoys to the Indian Ocean island to try and resolve the crisis peacefully.

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