A mutiny within the military has intensified the political crisis in Madagascar, an impoverished island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa that has suffered turmoil most of this year.
Over the weekend, soldiers at Camp Capsat, on the outskirts of the Malagasy capital, Antananarivo, said they would refuse to further suppress any street demonstrations against the government of President Marc Ravalomanana.
Col. Noel Rakotonandrasa, a leader of the restive troops, claimed wide support within the army and told reporters on Monday that “75 percent of soldiers are with us,” Reuters reported. He was flanked by other officers, but it was impossible to gauge the extent of the military’s defiance.
There were rumors that the camp was about to come under attack by troops loyal to the government. Mutinying soldiers were deployed at a roadblock that limited access to the base. Some said their disobedience was rooted in a refusal to take up arms against their countrymen.
“We were trained to protect property and citizens, not to fire at the people,” one of the men told Agence France-Presse.
In recent weeks, mass demonstrations against the government have become common events, including a protest that left at least 28 people dead on Feb. 7 after the presidential guard opened fire on a crowd near one of the presidential palaces.
The political conflict involves a rivalry between Ravalomanana, a wealthy businessman who took office after elections in 2001, and Andry Rajoelina, a media magnate and former disc jockey who was elected mayor of the capital in December 2007 and has of late denounced the president as a dictator insensitive to the needs of the nation. More than 100 people have died in civil unrest this year.
At a Jan. 31 rally, Rajoelina proclaimed that he was in charge of the nation, in effect declaring a coup. In response, Ravalomanana fired his rival as the capital’s mayor. Representatives from both the United Nations and the African Union have unsuccessfully tried to mediate.
On Friday, security officers went to Rajoelina’s home in an effort to arrest him. The 34-year-old maverick slipped away. He remains in hiding.
“At the heart of the current crisis is a political problem,” Defense Minister Mamy Ranaivoniarivo said Monday in a statement, reacting to the mutiny. “The military should not be manipulated and divided by the crisis.”
Andry Ralijaona, an official within the presidency, said in a phone interview that the number of mutineers was 70 to 110, “a small amount when there are 1,000 soldiers” around the capital. He added, however, that the disaffected troops had access to a “warehouse of munitions and arms.”
The complaints of the mutineers, Ralijaona said, concerned more than dislike of their duty at the protests. Grievances also involved pay and allegations that superiors were embezzling funds.
According to Ralijaona, the disaffected soldiers, abetted by violent supporters of Rajoelina, killed a policeman on Sunday and hung his body from a billboard. “They killed another person today, but the circumstances are not yet clear,” Ralijaona said.