Madagascar Army Starts Assault To Quell Mutiny

ANTANANARIVO (Reuters) - Madagascar's army stormed a military camp near the main airport on Sunday after mutinous troops took over the barracks and shot an officer sent in to negotiate with them, the army said.

An army statement asked people to "remain calm and evacuate the areas" near the military barracks as the troops moved "to the stage of arresting these mutineers".

"The assault has already begun," said the head of the army's communication service, Philibert Ratovonirina.

"A wounded sergeant with the mutineers who came out of the camp indicated there was an exchange of fire inside the camp. Gunfire is heard outside the camp."

A Reuters witness said he heard small arms fire and louder explosions at irregular intervals. People who had earlier gathered around the camp disappeared indoors.

The incident raised the specter of further strife in Madagascar, one of the world's poorest nations.

The Indian Ocean island has been plagued by political turmoil in the three years since then-opposition leader Andry Rajoelina ousted president Marc Ravalomanana, who has been in self-imposed exile in South Africa since his overthrow.

The rival leaders are due to meet for talks next week in the Seychelles, according to an aide to Ravalomanana.

The army said a group of armed soldiers had forced their way into the barracks in a dawn assault. "The group fired in the air, blocking all attempts to enter into the barracks," it added.

Soldiers and gendarmes surrounded the camp and a group of army officers were sent in to negotiate with the rebels, the army said. One of the rebel soldiers then shot a member of the negotiating team, Ratovonirina said.

The army statement added: "An officer who was in charge of negotiations was seriously wounded. A new recruit was also wounded."

The army has accused Corporal Koto Mainty, former bodyguard of a former defense minister and known as "Black", for leading the revolt.

A Defense Ministry statement said Ivato International airport remained open. "We are working normally as usual. But it is up to the companies to decide on their flights," border police chief John Brunelle Razafitsiandraofa told Reuters.

Britain's Foreign Office said in a travel advisory the airport had been closed. The U.S. embassy in Madagascar said on its Twitter feed that flights in and out had been suspended.


Armed Forces Minister General Lucien Rakotoarimasy told Reuters the soldiers' motivation remained unclear.

"We are trying to bring them back to reason," he said.

Madagascar is the world's biggest producer of vanilla.

Famed for its lemurs and rain forests, Madagascar's tourism industry has been badly hit by the insecurity, and investors eyeing its oil, gold and chrome have also become more wary.

In September, Madagascar's major parties signed a road map mediated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which confirmed Rajoelina as president, allowed for the unconditional return of Ravalomanana and paved the way for elections within a year.

Rajoelina led often-violent street protests against Ravalomanana and eventually seized power in March 2009 with the help of dissident army officers in what many aid donors considered a coup, leading them to freeze non-emergency aid.

Ravalomanana was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for the killings of demonstrators by troops in the run-up to his removal. He has tried to return to Madagascar without success.

Rajoelina has said the return of the former leader risked stoking tensions and a senior cabinet minister said in September that Ravalomanana would be arrested on arrival.

(Additional reporting by Faniry Clarel Rasoanaivo and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alessandra Rizzo)

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