The seven-year rule of Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana, holed up in his palace with a handful of loyal guards, appeared doomed Tuesday, after the army seized his office and demanded his speedy resignation.
The three-month-old challenge to his authority on the impoverished Indian Ocean island came to a climax late Monday when around 100 RPG-wielding soldiers backed by tanks stormed his office in the capital Antananarivo.
Ravalomanana had said over the weekend that he would not yield to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina's drive to unseat him but with only a handful of members of his presidential guard still loyal, the 59-year-old leader had few options.
|Madagascan soldiers loyal to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina stand gaurd at a rally in Antananarivo.|
Most of his family left the island last week when he lost control of the army and speculation abounded over the time and destination of the disgraced president's seemingly inevitable exile.
"We seized the presidency to hasten Ravalomanana's departure," Madagascan army chief of staff Colonel Andre Andriarijaona told AFP on Monday.
The army powered into the presidential compound in the city centre after dusk in an assault marked by two large explosions and a flurry of automatic gunfire.
Rajoelina, a 34-year-old DJ-turned-businessman who has led popular opposition to a regime seen as increasingly authoritarian, had urged the country's security forces to arrest the president for "high treason".
"I order the security forces to execute, without delay, the measures by the minister," the firebrand leader told thousands of supporters Monday, referring to an arrest warrant. "I repeat that victory is near."
The warrant for "high treason" was announced minutes earlier on the capital's May 13 square by Christine Razanamahasoa, who is the justice minister in a parallel administration set up by Rajoelina last month.
Besides the dubious legal value of a warrant issued by an administration which is not internationally recognised, the army chief said he hoped another assault on the palace occupied by the president would not be necessary.
"We are against any bloodletting, so we won't go there until we obtain guarantees on the presidential guard's intentions," he explained.
The president lost control of the army last week, when a military camp mutinied, arguing it was not prepared to turn its guns against the opposition or any civilians as the political feud escalated.
Rajoelina, accusing his rival of being a dictator starving his people, has used his charisma and own private television station to mount a brazen challenge on the country's top office.
Days of street protests initially appeared to make little impact on Ravalomanana, in power since 2002, but dissent emerged in the security forces when the presidential guard mowed down protestors in February, killing 28.
With direct talks between Ravalomanana's camp and the opposition in limbo, the army stepped in last week, determined to expedite a resolution.
Ravalomanana said in a statement Monday that Rajoelina's claim to power was illegitimate and argued that Rajoelina's rejection of a last-ditch offer for a referendum to decide the outcome was tantamount to "supporting anarchy".
On Monday, the African Union's Peace and Security Council convened an emergency meeting over the crisis, which has left around 100 people dead, and warned it would condemn any unconstitutional change of power.