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Madagascar coup plotters holed up in barracks

Country awaits results of referendum on draft constitution as political pressure increases on President Rajoelina to quit.

ANTANANARIVO // A small group of rebel soldiers who threatened to topple Madagascar's government were holed up in their barracks today as the Indian Ocean island awaited the next move in the latest coup plot.

President Andry Rajoelina, who drove the country's former leader, Marc Ravalomanana, into exile in March 2009 and held a referendum yesterday to legitimise his rule, has dismissed the rebels as an irrelevant minority, and military leaders have backed him.

There was calm across the city of faded French colonial grandeur, and the international airport, which the rebels had threatened to seize today, was running normally with no security forces visible.

Political pressure on the president increased however, with another former president, Albert Zafy, who was at the centre of failed efforts to broker a power-sharing deal between Mr Rajoelina and Mr Ravalomanana, saying Mr Rajoelina should quit.

Mr Zafy told Reuters: "We support the action of the rebel officers. Andry Rajoelina and [prime minister] Camille Vital should resign and not cling on to power.

"If there are officers who say things are bad, it is because corruption, bad governance and a lack of respect for the people are proven," Mr Zafy said.

The group of about 20 officers said yesterday that they had set up a military council to run the country.

Mr Rajoelina, Africa's youngest leader, appeared unruffled when he spoke to reporters late last night after the military top brass rallied behind the government and promised a swift crackdown on any mutiny.

"There was a letter threatening me with death if I didn't resign. It is thanks to God that I'm still here," he said.

It was not immediately clear whether the army chiefs backing the government would try to negotiate an exit for the dissidents, or use force to nip the rebellion in the bud.

The military has endured several rifts since the coup in 2009. One of the rebels, General Noel Rakotonandrasana, initially backed Mr Rajoelina's power grab and became armed forces minister. But he was sacked in April after rumours of a planned coup.

The political crisis has hammered the economy in Madagascar, the world's fourth largest island, where foreign firms are developing its oil, nickel, cobalt and uranium deposits.

The island hosts Sherritt International's Ambatovy project, due to be completed by January 2011, which will produce 60,000 tonnes of nickel a year once it hits full speed. The unrest occurred the same day Madagascar voted peacefully on a new draft constitution that would lower the minimum age for a president to 35, allowing the 36-year-old Mr Rajoelina both to stay in office until elections slated for May 4, 2011, and run again.

While analysts expected the referendum to pass, they said a low turnout would do little to help Rajoelina's attempts to legitimise his power grab in the face of widespread international censure.

Results were expected to continue trickling in today from across the country.

The first provisional results late last night from a handful of polling stations in the region gave the "Yes" camp a commanding lead, but with turnout of just 33 per cent.

Mr Rajoelina swept to power on the back of protests against Mr Ravalomanana's increasingly autocratic rule. But his failure to deliver on populist pledges has eroded his popularity.

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