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Madagascan pro-opposition armed forces take over presidential palace
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16:29, March 17, 2009

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Madagascan pro-opposition armed forces successfully forced into a presidential palace on Monday evening in the downtown of Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital, but President Marc Ravalomanana was not inside the building.

Bursts of gunfire and two rocket explosion were heard around 7 p.m. local time (1600 GMT) on Monday and soldiers were positioned around the palace, ready to enter the presidential compound.

There has been no shooting since the initial burst of gunfire and explosions when the soldiers began storming into the palace complex with two tanks, backed by armed troops, forced their way into the palace up on a hill of the city center.

One rocket, fired by the armed troops which showed their support to the opposition against Ravalomanana, missed its target to hit the Central Bank building nearby, a police official told Xinhua through telephone.

There were two presidential palaces in the capital city, one at Ambohitsorohitra, which was taken over by the armed troops, and the other in Iavoloha, some 10 km south of the city center.

Soldiers are seen after two tanks, backed by troops, forced their way into a presidential palace in Antananarivo March 16, 2009

Thousands of Ravalomanana's supporters had gathered around the palace at Iavoloha, blocking all the roads to and from the main gate of the presidential palace to avoid possible attack against the president.

A soldier runs while holding a weapon, after two tanks backed by troops forced their way into a presidential palace, in Antananarivo March 16, 2009

The opposition failed to take over the presidential palace at Ambohitsorohitra on February 7, when armed troops guarding the palace opened fire at anti-government demonstrators, killing dozens of them.

Madagascar's opposition leader Andry Rajoelina greets his supporters at the end of a religious service at Antananarivo's city centre March 15 ,2009

Early on Monday afternoon, the opposition leader, Andry Rajoelina, called on the security forces to arrest Ravalomanana, who has resisted growing pressure to resign over the political crisis in the Indian Ocean island country, in which at least 135 people have been killed.

Refusing to step down, Ravalomanana proposed a national referendum on Sunday, which was rejected by Rajoelina who said Ravalomanana was no longer the president of the country.

Saying "I am the president" and "we are already at the door of victory", Rajoelina told his supporters that only formalities remained to recognize him as the president of the country.

The armed forces in Madagascar have traditionally remained neutral in political volatility and confrontation since the country's independence from France in 1960.

But the forces have decided to get rid of the Chief of General-Staff appointed by President Ravalomanana early last February and elected Colonel Andre Ndriarijaona as their new chief.

Ndriarijaona told a press conference on Monday, "If Andry Rajoelina can resolve the problem, we are behind him," and "I would say 99 percent of the forces are behind him (Rajoelina)."

Ravalomanana has insisted that his stalemate with Rajoelina cold only be solved through democratic way like the national referendum he proposed.

Christine Razanamahasoa, appointed minister of justice in Rajoelina's parallel administration, said earlier on Monday that she had ordered prosecutors to arrest President Ravalomanana.

Also on Sunday, the African Union (AU) renewed its call to the Malagasy parties to exercise restraint and refrain from any action that could undermine the institutions of the country.

In a statement, AU Commission Chairperson Jean Ping said any irresponsible acts would "further complicate the search for a solution and seriously undermine civil peace and stability in the country."

Jean Ping said he continued to monitor closely the evolving situation in Madagascar, adding that he was seriously concerned by the developments of the last few hours.

The political stalemate between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina, the worst for years in the country, began last December when Ravalomanana ordered to shut down the radio and television station owned to Rajoelina.


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