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Group Blocks Madagascar Parliament

March 25, 2002

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ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar (AP) _ Opposition supporters set up barricades in the streets of Madagascar’s capital Monday, thwarting a bid by the military to seize control of the nation’s parliament.

In the latest turn in a 3-month-old election standoff, several truckloads of soldiers loyal to incumbent President Didier Ratsiraka descended on the parliamentary complex before dawn. But church bells soon sounded throughout Antananarivo, sending hundreds of opposition supporters into the streets to confront the soldiers.

They used rocks, garbage containers and an even an old steam engine to block roads leading to the legislature. Rather than risk a showdown, the outnumbered military backed down.

Madagascar has been gripped by political turmoil since opposition leader Marc Ravalomanana, 50, claimed outright victory in disputed Dec. 16 presidential elections and declared himself president.

Ratsiraka responded by declaring martial law in the capital, but his order has been mocked as the opposition commands overwhelming support in Antananarivo.

Ratsiraka, 67, who has relocated his government to the eastern port city of Toamasina, has declared that Parliament would remain closed until next month, but the opposition plans to reopen it on Tuesday.

On Monday, workers were busy sprucing up the parliamentary complex, erecting flags and painting curbs in preparation for the opening.

Parliament officials issued a statement saying they answered only to Ravalomanana’s administration.

Official election results showed no outright winner in the elections, forcing a runoff between Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana. But the opposition leader alleged the first round of voting was rigged.

Ratsiraka, who served as the Indian ocean island’s military ruler for 17 years before being elected in 1996, has demanded the runoff take place and ordered an economic blockade of the capital in a bid to force Ravalomanana to back down.

There is widespread uncertainty over who is in control of the country. While a number of senior generals have taken sides in the political dispute, the military has largely remained neutral. Though Ravalomana is popular in the capital, it is unclear how much support he has in the rest of the country.

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