Rebel Tanks in Streets as Madagascar Totters

Mutinous troops in Madagascar said Friday they were now able to deploy the army's tanks as necessary, a claim that, if confirmed, would show their influence is spreading within the divided security forces.

Col. Noel Rakotonandrasana, spokesman for the army faction that has declared it would no longer take orders from President Marc Ravalomanana, told The Associated Press Friday that tanks were moved overnight "to barracks where they are needed."

Rakotonandrasana would not elaborate, but denied rumors the mutineers were planning to march on the presidential palace.

While the mutineers have rejected Ravalomanana, they have not explicitly thrown their support to his rival, Andry Rajoelina. The mutineers say their priority is keeping order while the politicians work out their differences.

No tanks were seen Friday in the increasingly tense capital. A private radio station owned by Ravalomanana was urging listeners to go to the presidency to protect him, and pro- as well as anti-government demonstrators were gathering in the streets.

The military's support for the president began to waver last month after security forces opened fire and killed at least 25 pro-Rajoelina demonstrators in the capital.

Earlier this week, the leader of the mutineers, Col. Andre Ndrianarijaona, declared himself army chief. But the president received a measure of support Thursday from Vice Adm. Mamy Ranaivoniarivo, who had resigned as defense minister this week, apparently under pressure from the mutineers. State radio said Thursday that Ranaivoniarivo was back as defense minister.

Ravalomanana on Thursday urged the army to remain neutral in the political contest.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday that "the only solution to the current crisis is the resumption of dialogue," his spokeswoman Michele Montas said at U.N. headquarters in New York. "While there is concern over divisions within the armed forces, he welcomes the decision by the armed forces to continue to respect constitutional order."

A conference to resolve the crisis was to have begun Thursday, but was indefinitely postponed because the opposition refused to participate.

Opposition leader Rajoelina, then mayor of the capital, set off the turmoil in January by leading protests against Ravalomanana and proposing that he take over.

Ravalomanana is a wealthy businessman who started his political career as mayor of the capital. He dismissed Rajoelina as Antananarivo's mayor as the crisis escalated.

Madagascar is one of Africa's poorest nations, with more than half the population living on less than $1 per day — even though oil was discovered three years ago, raising the political stakes.

The nation of 20 million people is known for its rare wildlife and eco-tourism, but also for political standoffs.

Ravalomanana clashed with former President Didier Ratsiraka when both claimed the presidency after a disputed December 2001 election. After low-level fighting split the country between two governments, two capitals and two presidents, Ratsiraka fled to France in June 2002.

Ravalomanana won re-election in 2006, though two opposition candidates tried to challenge the validity of that vote.