Dissident soldiers said they deployed tanks in Madagascar’s capital on Friday and that they would use them to fight any mercenaries hired in a power struggle that has killed 135 people on the Indian Ocean island.
Reuters reports the troops have broken away from the traditionally neutral security forces, saying they wanted to bring order to a country torn by a stand-off between President Marc Ravalomanana and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina.
Ravalomanana urged city residents to organise themselves to repel the mutineers and defend the presidential palace. But the US ambassador said a coup looked unlikely.
In the worst civil unrest for years, it is unclear who controls the government or military. The crisis is crippling the country’s $390 million-a-year tourism industry.
Many in the opposition fear the president will bring in mercenaries to defend his hold on power despite the dissident soldiers denying that they are taking orders from Rajoelina.
“We moved tanks into Tana during the middle of the night. They’re not on the streets but at a secret location,” said Colonel Noel Rakotonandrasa, a spokesman for the mutineers, adding that it was just a precautionary tactic.
“They are to intercept any mercenaries who come here.”
The president’s office denied it had called upon foreign mercenaries to attack the army. It said two South Africans and two Israeli advisers were in Madagascar to show the security forces how to use new anti-riot equipment.
We have no intention of attacking the presidential palace,” the spokesman said by telephone. “We have no intention of killing our brothers (in Ravalomanana’s security detail).”
That assurance seemed to do little to placate the president.
“The president appeals to the people of Iavoloha (a city suburb) to organise themselves to thwart all movements of mutinous troops towards the palace to protect the president and the palace,” said a statement read on his private radio station.
On Wednesday, the leader of the widening mutiny within the army named himself chief of staff, ousting the country’s top general who had given the political rivals 72 hours — until Friday — to find a solution or face military intervention.
US Ambassador Niels Marquardt and other diplomats held private talks on Thursday with the officers leading the rebels.
“The colonels now in charge say this as clearly as possible: we are not here to do a coup d’etat,” Marquardt told Reuters.
“It’s an unusual situation … but the answers we got were actually quite reassuring in terms of their intent to restore law and order and to re-establish cohesion within the armed forces, which for them and the nation was a major concern”.
Rajoelina, 34, a former disc jockey, has been under UN protection since fleeing attempts to arrest him last week. He calls the president a dictator and has tapped into deep public resentment at Ravalomanana’s failure to tackle poverty.
Critics call Rajoelina a maverick and troublemaker, and analysts are unsure whether he has over-played his hand or is riding on a popular wave that could carry him to power.
Rakotonandrasa denied taking orders from the opposition. “We are there to get the country out of this crisis. The politicians have not fulfilled their responsibilities,” he said.
“We do not have the direct backing of Rajoelina, we have the backing of the people. We are not taking orders from Rajoelina.”
The political crisis has been running since the start of 2009. On Wednesday, the U.S. ambassador said on Wednesday that Madagascar was “on the verge of civil war”.
European Union mission head Jean-Claude Boidin has told Reuters any “non-constitutional” solution to the political impasse – meaning a coup – would lead to a suspension of aid.