Police break up demonstration in Madagascar

Sunday, March 29, 2009

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar -- Police in Madagascar's capital broke up an opposition demonstration by shooting into the air and using tear gas Saturday, Hospital officials said 34 people were injured.

The demonstrators, supporters of Madagascar's ousted President Marc Ravalomanana, had tried to converge on a central square where the president's rival had held demonstrations in recent months.

Andry Rajoelina had led a campaign of street protests that, with backing from the military, brought Ravalomanana down earlier this month. Rajoelina had accused Ravalomanana of doing too little to help the country's poor majority.

Ravalomanana supporters had hoped to hear him address them by telephone Saturday from Swaziland, where he has been consulting with leaders before a regional summit on Madagascar set for Monday.

He was unable to address the crowd before police broke up the gathering. Later Saturday, a private radio station broadcast an audio recording of Ravalomanana's speech, in which he said he would return soon.

"Keep going, consolidate your movement so that the entire world can know that we won't stop until the rule of law is re-established," he said.

"I beseech you not to accept the repression that certain people want to impose, the division they want to create," he said. "We must show our unity, our solidarity."

A melee followed the breakup of the demonstration. Officials at the capital's Joseph Ravoahangy Andrianavalona Hospital said they treated 34 injured people. Police officers at the scene said they were trying to prevent confrontations between Ravalomanana's supporters and his opponents.

In response to Saturday's police action, Ravalomanana supporters called for a general strike Monday.

"Students should not go to school, office workers should stop their work and the private sector should stop paying taxes so as not to support an illegal regime," said union leader Constant Raveloson, who heads a movement calling for the re-establishment of constitutional order.

Madagascar's neighbors have denounced Rajoelina's seizure of power as unconstitutional. The Southern African Development Community summit on Monday is to discuss whether to impose sanctions to try to force Rajoelina to surrender power.

Rajoelina has promised new elections within two years, after a new constitution and electoral laws are adopted and an independent electoral commission is installed.

The African Union has condemned Rajoelina and suspended Madagascar until it has a government elected through fair and transparent elections.

Western nations have also voiced concern at what critics say was a coup, with Washington cutting all non-humanitarian aid to the impoverished country.

Friday, Rajoelina told reporters prices for bread, fuel and other necessities on Madagascar will drop -- in some cases sharply -- starting Monday.

Rajoelina also said his transitional team would keep spending down by not buying government vehicles or raising salaries. "Our priority is to fight against the high cost of living," Rajoelina said Friday.

He said merchants had agreed to drop the price of a loaf of bread by a third, from 300 ariary (about 15 U.S. cents) to 200 ariary (about 10 U.S. cents) and cooking oil by more than 40 percent, from about $2.25 per liter (about $9 a gallon) to about $1.30 (about $5 a gallon). Fuel prices were cut more modestly, with gas dropping a penny to $1.26 per liter (about $5 a gallon). Those new prices were to take effect Monday.

Rajoelina added he would do everything he could to bring down the price of rice, the staple here, by 10 cents to about 50 cents a kilogram (about $1 a pound) "very soon."

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