Antananarivo — Ahead of a planned three-day National Consultative Conference to resolve Madagascar's deep political turmoil, the country's senior military commander warned on 10 March that the army will step in and impose order if a solution is not found within 72 hours.
Chief-of-staff General Edmond Rasolofomahandry said the armed forces would remain neutral and act in the interests of national unity; his remarks followed a mutiny on 8 March by a group of soldiers at a major base in the capital, Antananarivo, who said they would no longer take orders from the government, and blocked access to the camp.
The general's comments came after President Marc Ravalomanana had made a public apology for mistakes made during his seven years of running the country. Although his economic reforms attracted investors, they failed to make an appreciable dent on poverty.
"I speak to you from my heart. If there have been errors I am sorry," said Ravalomanana, a self-made millionaire. "I am very sorry, but promise to do my best for the success of the national conference and for national unity."
The president has been hounded by a street-based campaign led by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, which accuses the twice-elected Ravalomanana of being authoritarian, and demanding his resignation. At least 100 people have died in the protests and accompanied looting that began in Antananarivo in January.
Ravalomanana said he understood the frustration and anger of those who do not support him, and that the country's political crisis must end. "The national conference will be a major event in stabilising the country," he said.
The planned 12 - 14 March conference is being organised by Madagascar's influential Council of Christian Churches (FFKM) and the United Nations. Its aim is to broaden dialogue to include all parties affected by the crisis. Those invited include representatives from the armed forces, civil society, the private sector, labour unions and religious communities.
The conference is intended to provide the two men at the centre of the political deadlock - Ravalomanana, and Rajoelina, the former mayor of the capital - with an opportunity to soften their hardline positions without losing face.
"The conference is about finding a way to ensure long-term political, social and economic solutions," Rodney Ford, head of communications at the US embassy, told IRIN.
Some analysts believe that supporting democratic institutions is the only way forward. "This is the only way to find a solution, and to offer people here a chance to solve the political crisis themselves," said one analyst, who asked not to be named.
Rajoelina gets protection
But on the ground in Antananarivo, the situation shows little sign of improving. News that Rajoelina has been given protection by the French embassy has angered government supporters. They accuse France - Madagascar's former colonial power - of meddling in the country's political affairs.
Clashes broke out again on 10 March between opposition supports and those loyal to the president. A pro-Ravalomanana group had been attempting to stage a protest outside the French Embassy.
Tension has also been mounting within the security forces. Minister of defence, Mamy Ranaivonarivo, announced his resignation on 10 March; later in the day he appeared to retract his statement.
According government sources, he was forced to resign by elements in the army who have refused to take orders from the government in protest at the way opposition demonstrations have been stopped by the authorities. Ranaivonarivo's resignation makes him the second defence minister to quit in a month.
As looting on the streets of Antananarivo continues and the security situation deteriorates, NGO's are preparing themselves for a potential humanitarian crisis. The United Nations World Food Programme has expanded food distribution operations in the country.
"There is a greater demand for nutritional aid since the crisis began," Krystyna Bednarska, head of the WFP in Madagascar told IRIN. "The problems mean that people can't work. Many have lost their jobs and it is the most vulnerable people that are being affected."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]