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Madagascar calms after rioting, deaths

By on January 29, 2009

After two days of violence and looting that claimed the lives of at least 48 people, relative calm settled over Madagascar Wednesday. But the possibility of further violence loomed as anti-government protesters gathered in a central square, vowing future demonstrations.

President Marc Ravalomanana and other senior government officials surveyed some of the damage Wednesday and vowed to restore order “whatever the cost,” a government statement said. Ravalomanana ordered a member of his joint chiefs of staff to work with the protesters and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina to keep the calm.

Meanwhile, Rajoelina — mayor of the capital, Antananarivo — addressed the protesters at a downtown rally Wednesday afternoon, calling for two days of general strikes and another mass demonstration Saturday. The strikes would prevent stores and schools from opening.

On Tuesday the authorities tried to control protesters who set fire to the state-run media complex the day before. Ravalomanana said he initially held off on ordering troops to fight off looters, saying he wanted to avoid more casualties.

“It is better that equipment be destroyed rather than human lives,” he said in the statement, adding that looters would not be prosecuted because he “understands the Malagasy people are poor and hungry.”

A spokesman for Joseph Ravohanjy Hospital said 48 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in the violence since Monday. By Wednesday, a relative calm had fallen over the area and Rajoelina’s rally at the square was peaceful, a Western observer told CNN.

The violence began when protesters stormed the government’s radio and television station in Antananarivo, Monday morning in response to Ravalomanana shutting down Rajoelina’s radio station hours earlier.

Ravalomanana’s move came just weeks after closing Rajoelina’s television station last month after the airing of an interview with ousted ex-President Didier Ratsiraka.

Viva Radio was back on the air Tuesday as the protesters broadened their focus from restoring freedom of speech to targeting businesses owned by Ravalomanana, including food distribution centers, according to an American community worker in Antananarivo.

By Tuesday afternoon, some of the protesters had broken from the group, looting private electronic shops and grocery stores that sat alongside the Ravalomanana-owned buildings, Christi Turner said.

“Today and yesterday, it’s been a collective disappointment and shock and sadness for me and my friends and other aid workers,” Turner told CNN on Tuesday night. “People have lost their heads in the mob mentality.”

She added that the government “is not taking the most effective steps controlling the situation,” noting that military and police didn’t publicly address the looters until Tuesday.

Reports of injuries and deaths from resulting fires could not be immediately confirmed.

Rodney Ford, public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo, said the United States is calling for calm and pushing for dialogue between the president and the mayor. Both sides have offered to negotiate, which a group of ambassadors is working toward.

“We are worried about the loss of life,” Ford said. “The Malagasy people need to work this out, it’s not an issue outsiders can fix. The U.S. Embassy is calling for calm and restraint. We are working to mediate within both parties.” (Cnn)

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