Ratsiraka calls off new talks until his PM is released

Fresh talks between Madagascar's two political rivals were dealt another blow on Tuesday, as former president Didier Ratsiraka said he would not attend the planned meeting in Senegal until his erstwhile prime minister was released from house arrest.

President Marc Ravalomanana's supporters on Monday raided the residence of former prime minister Tantely Andrianarivo and detained him. Andrianarivo has remained loyal to Ratsiraka.

Political analyst at the University of Madagascar, Olivier Razanatsoa, said: "It is not surprising that Ratsiraka has decided not to go ahead with the talks. Both of them [Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana] are trying to score points before they reach Dakar. It is part of a broader political bargaining strategy."

But Ravalomanana told French news agency AFP on Tuesday: "We have not arrested him. We are simply guarding his house for his own safety."

The two men announced last Friday that they would renew talks aimed at ending a long-running dispute over who won the 16 December presidential election, in Dakar this week.

But Ratsiraka said he would not attend the talks unless the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) first held a crisis resolution summit to address Madagascar's long-running stalemate. Sources in the capital, Antananarivo, said the situation in provincial cities was tense in the wake of Andrianarivo's arrest.

Meanwhile, as the political crisis drags on into its sixth month, the World Food Programme (WFP) told IRIN that the number of cases of malnutrition had increased since the start of the political imbroglio in December.

"Some groups are more vulnerable than others. The price increase of basic commodities means that the urban poor are finding it more difficult to buy essential food. Their coping mechanisms have dramatically diminished," WFP Resident Coordinator, Bodo Henze, said.

Henze noted: "The recent harvest in the Tananarive province wasn't bad, however farmers cannot get their produce to the capital because of a lack of fuel."

Fuel is in short supply and parallel-market petrol is incredibly expensive, with prices now as high as US $4 a litre.

The cost of transporting essential foodstuffs has forced their prices up by 45 percent in a matter of weeks.

Up until now, WFP had confined its food assistance programme to the more rural regions of the country, but the imminent food shortages in the capital has prompted the organisation to consider extending its assistance to Antananarivo.

Henze is not optimistic: "Malnutrition does not happen overnight and will not go away overnight. Even if a political solution to the crisis was found today, we will need some time to redress the impact the crisis has had on the population."