A colonel who supported a politician's power-grab in Madagascar last year says that with the support of other top-ranking officers he has taken over the Indian Ocean island on the same day that the country heads to the polls.
REUTERS - Dissident officers declared a takeover of power in Madagascar on Wednesday, but the island's military leadership vowed to crush any rebellion and security forces dispersed a crowd that had gathered to back the rebels.
Witnesses said about a thousand people erected a roadblock and set tyres ablaze near a barracks housing the rebel soldiers, who said they had formed a ruling committee to take power on Wednesday as Madagascar voted on a new draft constitution.
The security forces stepped in and fired tear gas, chasing the protesters away.
Flanked by the country's military top brass, Prime Minister Camille Vital told reporters the security forces would ensure the rule of law was upheld after what appeared to be an attempt by the dissident officers to torpedo the referendum.
"We will apply the law to those who flout it," he said.
Rebel Colonel Charles Andrianasoavina said earlier at the barracks near the airport that a "military council for the welfare of the people" had been formed to run the world's fourth largest island.
"It's a war of communiques for now but things could degenerate quickly," said Madagascar expert Lydie Bokar of the Lille-based political risk consultancy StrategieCo.
Colonel Andrianasoavina was one of the main backers of President Andry Rajoelina's power-grab in March last year when he toppled Marc Ravalomanana. Another senior officer behind Rajoelina then was also in the rebellious group.
Andrianasoavina told France 24 television that the group had not yet suspended the government, but intended to seize the presidential palace and ministries.
"We are close to the international airport. Depending on the sitaution tomorrow, the airspace will be closed. Tomorrow we intend to take the airport and stop anybody leaving Madagascar," he said.
The country's military has suffered from rifts since the 2009 coup. A group of dissident military police briefly seized control of a military camp in May, before being quashed by the security forces.
A Reuters witness said it was calm outside the presidential palace in the city's centre. Members of the security forces have been on the streets monitoring voting in the referendum, which is seen as a test of confidence in Rajoelina's leadership.
THE INTERVIEW WITH DEPOSED PRESIDENT MARC RAVALOMANANA
Rajoelina scrapped the old constitution after ousting unpopular leader Ravalomanana with military backing, creating turmoil on the island targeted by foreign investors for its oil, nickel, cobalt and uranium deposits.
International mediators brokered a series of power sharing agreements between Rajoelina, Ravalomanana and two other former presidents, but they all collapsed in bickering over the allocation of ministerial posts.
Voters cast their ballots peacefully at more than 18,000 polling stations which closed later than scheduled at 1500 GMT because of delays caused by issues with some voter lists.
Some opposition supporters said they had taken to the streets near the barracks to vent their anger at Rajoelina's failure to end the political impasse that has hammered the Indian Ocean island's economy.
"Whether the result is Yes or No, Rajoelina will be destroyed," said Nirina Rafenomanana. "We will no longer tolerate what is happening to this country."
The three main opposition parties, each headed by one of the former presidents, are boycotting the vote.
A senior political ally of former President Albert Zafy said the opposition leader had called on the military to "assume their responsibilities" given the political impasse, without overtly calling for a takeover.
"I understand that these officers seem to have acted that way," said Zafy ally Emmanuel Rakotovahiny.
The new constitution lowers the minimum age for a president by five years to 35, which would regularise 36-year-old Rajoelina's rule and allow him to renege on a previous pledge that he will not contest the next vote slated for May 4, 2011.
The proposed law also sets no deadline for presidential elections, which critics say could allow Rajoelina to remain indefinitely at the helm of the country brought to fame by its lemurs and the DreamWorks animation film "Madagascar".
"I just voted because I would like to see changes when it comes to governance. If I had not voted, then there would be no changes. Whether you vote yes or no, you are already on your way to find a solution," said Aha Randriamahefa in the capital.