Attempted "coup" fizzles in desire for peaceful poll

Tensions flared briefly in Madagascar as an army general's call for President Marc Ravalomanana to stand down ahead of next month's presidential elections was "misinterpreted" as a coup attempt.

Local media reported that retired General Andrianafidisoa, commonly known as 'General Fidy', had called for military action against Ravalomanana and allegedly distributed leaflets announcing a provisional government led by the military at a base near the international airport of the capital, Antananarivo, on Friday.

According to a western diplomat, 'Fidy' was "interviewed on local radio this morning [Monday]. He said there was no coup attempt and that it was a misinterpretation, but he admitted that he was at the base from Friday to Saturday, and had openly called for the president to stand down because the government was 'anti-constitutional'."

One government soldier was killed in an exchange of gunfire at the military base early on Saturday morning, when security forces attempted to arrest the general.

However, the event does not appear to have ruffled the military. "It seemed like a minor incident and the army didn't want to follow him," said Solofo Randrianja, professor of Political History at the University of Toamasina, adding that "they still have not caught him".

During the radio interview, Fidy claimed he was 150km outside the capital, and was aware that a warrant for his arrest had been issued. Minister of Defence Petera Behajaina said sanctions in accordance with the military code would be taken against the General.

"The situation has remained calm in the entire country as well as in the capital ... over the weekend, and is still calm." Bouri Sanhouidi, the United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator, told IRIN.

The incident is not expected to affect the upcoming polls. "The majority of the population only learnt about the incident through the radio and newspaper, as the situation appeared normal in the streets and in business," Sanhouidi said.

Kelley Jones, Resident Representative of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US-based civic organisation working to strengthen and expand global democracy, commented: "I don't think this will affect the electoral process - most people here are not even aware of what happened." The NDI is conducting an assessment of the electoral environment on the Indian Ocean island.

Ravalomanana came to power after elections in 2001 ended the rule of Didier Ratsiraka, who had controlled the country since a military coup in 1975. Ratsiraka refused to accept defeat, sending Madagascar into eight months of crisis marked by violence and considerable economic disruption. After a recount in April 2002, Madagascar's High Constitutional Court (HCC) pronounced Ravalomanana president. "Fidy was one of the generals that supported Ravalomanana in 2001," Jones said.

Once a presidential hopeful, the HHC reportedly barred Fidy from standing for election on 3 December because he did not pay the US$11,400 deposit required of all candidates.

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