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Supporters vow to protect president

Madagascar's leader Marc Ravalomanana is vowing to fight to the death if pro-opposition soldiers try to drive him from power.

Madagascan soldiers loyal to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina guard the presidential palace in Antananarivo on March 17, 2009 after the army seized the office of Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana on March 16.
Madagascan soldiers loyal to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina guard the presidential palace in Antananarivo on March 17, 2009 after the army seized the office of Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana on March 16.

ANTANANARIVO // Presidential guards and hundreds of supporters protected Madagascar's leader Marc Ravalomanana who is vowing to fight to the death if pro-opposition soldiers try to drive him from power. Weeks of opposition protests and turmoil on the Indian Ocean island have killed more than 135 people, crippled tourism and left Mr Ravalomanana's grip on power looking very tenuous. Foreign investors in the mining and oil exploration sectors are anxious.

"I am worried we are descending into civil war. Each side is calling on their supporters," said Victor Razafindratsima, crowding round a newspaper kiosk with other anxious residents of the capital Antananarivo. On Monday, Madagascar's traditionally neutral army threw its weight behind the opposition leader Andry Rajoelina and stormed a presidential palace in the heart of Antananarivo. The army also seized the central bank.

Tanks and scores of soldiers guarded the buildings today. Although bracing for possible violence, Malagasy still sought to go about their business, with schools staying open and some people opening shops and going to work as normal. Mr Rajoelina, a 34-year-old former disc jockey and sacked mayor of Antananarivo, has been calling for Mr Ravalomanana's resignation since the start of 2009 and now wants him arrested. He calls the president a dictator running Madagascar like a private firm.

Mr Ravalomanana, 59, is holed up in another presidential palace on the outskirts of the capital, with supporters forming a human shield on roads outside. He has offered a referendum and says he will not leave by non-democratic means. "This is becoming a military coup," said the presidential spokesman Andry Ralijaona. "The presidential guard told him he should be placed elsewhere, and he replied, 'I will die with you if I have to'. That's his stand."

Mr Rajoelina says he is impatient to take office and has set up his own parallel administration, but his push for power is complicated by the possibility of alienating foreign powers. The African Union (AU), whose next summit was scheduled to take place in Madagascar, has condemned the "attempted coup d'etat" in Madagascar. The European Union has said it will cut aid and shun anyone coming to power by force.

The outside world is astonished by the rapid turn-of-events in Madagascar, driven, it seems, by Mr Rajoelina's determination to topple Mr Ravalomanana as fast as possible. Mr Rajoelina has led protests since the start of 2009, tapping into widespread public discontent with high levels of poverty. The president's supporters say Mr Rajoelina is a troublemaker bent on seizing power illegally. Analysts thought Mr Rajoelina may have overplayed his hand by claiming he was Madagascar's de facto leader early on in the crisis, but the balance of power appears to be swinging his way, particularly with support from the army.

The army chief of staff says 99 per cent of soldiers are behind Mr Rajoelina, though the president says significant sections remain with him. A solution is needed fast, diplomats say, to prevent further bloodshed and save an economy whose US$390 million-a-year (Dh1.4bn) tourism sector is collapsing. The UN and other mediators have failed to bring the two sides together for face-to-face talks. *Reuters