Reform and mercenaries in Madagascar

Madagascar plans to hold a presidential election in October 2010 to restore democracy after Andry Rajoelina took power last month in a transition branded a coup by foreign leaders.

A roadmap agreed during a two-day conference in the capital Antananarivo envisages changes to the constitution and electoral code this year followed by a parliamentary election next March and then the presidential vote in October, Reuters reports.

“The transition will therefore be 19 months rather than 24,” Rajoelina told delegates on Friday. “No one wants to remain president of the state’s (transition) authority for long, but it is a responsibility.”

He had previously pledged to hold elections within two years of his rise to power but foreign leaders have been calling for quick elections to restore constitutional order.

Madagascar has been suspended from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). A defiant Rajoelina said this week it was not in the country’s interests to be a SADC member anyway.

The party of former President Marc Ravalomanana boycotted the two-day conference.

“We appeal for mediation from SADC or international forces,” said party member Fetison Andrianirina. “We will seek meetings with those who have different views to us, but that will only happen with international mediation.”

Ravalomanana stepped down after intense pressure from Rajoelina’s supporters and army chiefs. He fled to Swaziland and pledged last month to return to Madagascar soon.

Last week, his supporters held daily protests in the capital. At least 34 people were injured on Saturday when demonstrators clashed with the security forces.

South African mercenaries?

Mining group Rio Tinto says police and troops last week Wednesday searched its Fort Dauphin titanium mine for arms and mercenaries, but found nothing.

Rio, Madagascar‘s biggest foreign investor, owns 80 percent of the QMM mineral sands operation on the south of the Indian Ocean Island. The government owns the rest.

“The security forces found nothing suspect following the search. A document to that effect was signed after the search,” a QMM spokesman told Reuters in Madagascar.

Troops with a search warrant conducted a peaceful search in the afternoon and demanded a list of foreign workers, QMM said in a statement.

The statement referred to rumours that had been circulating for several days, but did not give details.

The new government has been worried that former President Marc Ravalomanana, who quit under pressure from the military, plans to use South African mercenaries to retake power.

Rajoelina has said his administration was reviewing all contracts with foreign investors because the country was receiving too little revenue.

Rio, the world’s third biggest diversified mining group by market capitalisation, has not had any communication from the new government about contracts and the mine was still operating normally, Rio spokesman Nick Cobban said in London.

Rio launched production in January at the mine, which cost $1.2 billion to build, and Cobban said the first shipment was due this month.

Its main product is titanium, a white pigment used in paint and other coatings, paper, plastics and cosmetics.