JOHANNESBURG – Madagascar's ousted president said Thursday he will attempt to return from exile in South Africa despite facing a life sentence in prison, as the regime that forced him out in a coup vowed to keep order on the Indian Ocean island nation.
Democratically elected President Marc Ravalomanana said that he would return to Madagascar on Saturday, despite having been convicted in absentia of conspiracy to commit murder. The court set up by coup leader Andry Rajoelina sentenced him to life at hard labor.
Ravalomanana told reporters in Johannesburg that he knows the risks, "but cannot allow them to get in the way of us restoring democracy."
When repeatedly asked how he could lead dialogue in the country if he was imprisoned upon arrival in Madagascar, Ravalomanana evaded the question, saying: "I have done nothing wrong, and I have no fear."
"When I will be back in Madagascar, I'll call all political parties and civil societies and we will have a round-table to discuss about the inclusive government, and I'm sure they will listen to me," he said.
Ravalomanana was toppled two years ago after soldiers opened fire on anti-government protesters, killing at least 25 people. The desperately poor country off the southeast coast of Africa has become increasingly isolated as the international community accuses Rajoelina of seizing power undemocratically.
Rajoelina promised to organize elections after seizing power, but two years later no poll has taken place. On Thursday, Ravalomanana expressed impatience with efforts by Madagascar's neighbors to reach a solution to the political crisis.
"International mediation, no matter how skilled, cannot replace the process of brother speaking to brother; of political foes coming together, as patriots in the interests of the country we all love — to define a solution which is peaceful, lasting and prosperous," Ravalomanana said.
South Africa's foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said regional efforts were continuing.
"There are discussions about keeping the de facto president, Rajoelina, as an interim leader as we build up to returning the country to democratic order."
She would not say whether South Africa was concerned about the possible return of Ravalomanana leading to renewed unrest.
Ravalomanana had prevailed in a struggle with another rival in 2001 that left the island divided with two presidents, two governments and two capitals for six months.
Ravalomanana went from peddling yogurt from a bicycle to running a multimillion-dollar food and broadcasting empire. His rags-to-riches tale was once a source of popularity, but Rajoelina was able to portray his rival as interested primarily in further enriching himself and increasingly out of touch with the suffering of ordinary people.
The majority of Madagascar's population lives in misery, with ecotourism, vanilla production and even the recent discovery of oil still not enough to spur poverty-busting growth. The political unrest has scared off tourists who once paid dearly to see Madagascar's rare lemur primates and baobab trees — just when the two DreamWorks animated features about animals from the island were spurring interest.
Associated Press Writer Donna Bryson contributed to this report from Pretoria, South Africa.