Madagascar ruler 'exile' reports
PARIS, France -- France has called for a "rapid and peaceful" solution to a presidential power struggle in Madagascar, following the unscheduled arrival of veteran leader Didier Ratsiraka in Paris.
Madagascar media was on Friday full of speculation that he had fled into exile in the island's former colonial ruler, reporting he had taken his wife and daughter Sophie with him.
The ruler for 20 years had "probably left the island definitively" Web site Mad Online reported under a headline: "Goodbye to the throne."
On Friday Ratsiraka's younger rival, Marc Ravalomanana, whom the courts have declared winner of December elections, appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the country.
The millionaire businessman, who has declared himself president, told national radio that barricades put up across the Indian Ocean island by Ratsiraka in an attempt to strangle his power base in Antananarivo had been dismantled.
"The barriers have been completely taken down throughout Madagascar," he said.
"I now call for national reconciliation so the country can start working towards national recovery in peace and harmony."
Clashes between security forces and protesters have killed about 70 people since the crisis began.
Ratsiraka, a socialist ex-naval officer known as "the Red Admiral" has been under growing pressure to give up his claim to the presidency from supporters of Ravalomanana.
Ratsiraka has been battling to stay in control of the African island of 16 million people since December elections, which his opponent says were rigged.
Before leaving for Paris, the 65-year-old who has ruled for 20 years vowed he was not giving up.
"I am not abandoning Madagascar or its people, I am going abroad for their good and to work towards a solution," he said.
A spokesman for the French foreign ministry said a fast political solution was needed to the six-month showdown between the two rival presidents and that the next step would be a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity at a date yet to be set.
Last weekend in Dakar, Senegal, a team of African presidents brought the two rival rulers together but there was no progress after Ravalomanana insisted Ratsiraka must step down.
African leaders have been under extra pressure to find a solution because of attempts to put in place an ambitious development plan that called for huge overseas support in exchange for an all-African brokered deal.
Up to last weekend Ravalomanana controlled the capital Antananarivo and a province in the southeast of the island, which is the size of Spain and Portugal combined.
Ratsiraka retained the loyalty of governors in the remaining four provinces.
Ratsiraka is one of Africa's longest serving heads of state. He took power in 1975 and, with a brief hiatus in the early 1990s, has been in charge ever since.
But his grip on power was shaken when he stood for a fifth term last December. His newcomer opponent Ravalomanana inspired millions with his rags-to-riches history and promises to weed out the corruption that many say Ratsiraka's regime spawned.
Official results showed that no one won the December 16 polls, but Ravalomanana accused Ratsiraka of fiddling the vote.
After weeks of massive anti-Ratsiraka protests in the capital Antananarivo, Ravalomanana declared himself president and proceeded to take control of all the government offices.
Ratsiraka looked on powerless as several of his cabinet and senior members of the military defected to Ravalomanana's side.
Ratsiraka relocated his own cabinet to his home region of Toamasina on the east coast of the giant island and continued to call for a second round of elections to settle the issue.
Now struggling to regain the initiative, Ratsiraka can look back on a career that shaped the island's destiny.
A former naval officer who became president during a period of military rule in 1975, he launched a socialist revolution which set the country at odds with former colonial power and ally France.
The experiment failed, and as the economy, health and education systems collapsed in the 1980s, Ratsiraka switched course, embracing free-market and democratic reforms.
The changes came too slow to save him or revive the fortunes of Madagascar's impoverished people. A huge uprising forced him to form a government of national unity and relinquish all executive powers as president.
Defeated in presidential elections in late 1992 and early 1993 by Albert Zafy, Ratsiraka was not out of the limelight for long. Zafy's government collapsed after the failure of a series of radically populist policies, leaving Ratsiraka to win the presidency again after elections in 1996.
Ratsiraka is seen by many Malagasy people, especially in rural areas, as a sort of "father of the nation," a reassuring symbol of stability. Opponents say his ruling Vanguard of the Malagasy Revolution (Arema) party has monopolised power.
He was born on November 4, 1936 into a wealthy family at Vatomandry on the east coast and was brought up as a Christian and remains a fervent Roman Catholic.
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