African Union denounces 'attempted coup' in Madagascar

The African Union denounced what it called an "attempted coup" in Madagascar last night after troops and tanks stormed one of the presidential palaces on the Indian Ocean island.

The show of force by the army, publicly backing the opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, appeared to signal a decisive swing in the balance of power away from the embattled president Marc Ravalomanana.

A day of violent confusion in the troubled country ended with gun shots being heard in the capital Antananarivo and a warning that more was to follow from opposition leader Andry Rajoelina. Seemingly emboldened by his military support, he warned that a fresh attack on the president's haven at his residence, Iavoloha, on the outskirts of the capital could follow shortly.

"Right now Ravalomanana has no power," the opposition leader told Reuters last night. "Do we intend to seize Iavoloha? Many things will take place in the next 48 hours."

However, he denied sending the troops in against his rival.

"It wasn't me who gave the order (to take the palace)".

The former French colony has been gripped by an escalating power struggle between the political rivals and Mr Ravalomanana played what some analysts believe may have been his last card yesterday, offering a referendum on his rule in an effort to stabilise the country and win himself some time.

That offer was swiftly rejected by the populist mayor and former DJ who instead called on the armed forces to arrest the president. The call came just three days after the confident pretender had issued an ultimatum to Mr Ravalomanana to step down within four hours. That deadline came and went without action but in recent weeks it has become increasingly clear that the president's hold on power is slipping.

Despite persistent attempts by the government to portray him as a rabble rouser with only "street" support the 34 year old Mr Rajoelina has gathered increasing momentum after leading popular protests against the president.

Mr Ravalomanana, a tycoon compared by some with Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi, only won re-election in 2006 but the arrival of a younger more media-conscious rival has seen his support dwindle drastically. The parallels between the 55 year old self made millionaire and his flashy opponent are striking. Both men stepped into politics by winning the mayoralty in Antananarivo and both have defined themselves in opposition to the traditional and older political elite. However, the president has found himself outflanked by a man who is six years too young to take the highest office under the present constitution.

(Video from France 24)

Underneath the tussle for power is a widespread discontent at poverty levels on the world's fourth largest island. The army which has traditionally remained neutral in the country's frequent political battles has sided strongly with the opposition leader, even sacking the head of the armed forces last week to clear the way.

"We are there for the Malagasy people. If Andry Rajoelina can resolve the problem, we are behind him," said Colonel Andre Ndriarijaona, who led the mutiny last week and replaced the previous army chief of staff.

Mr Ravalomanana was not in the complex of buildings near the centre of the capital when the soldiers took over yesterday. He is being guarded by lightly armed supporters at another palace on the other side of the city.

The struggle on Madagascar began earlier this year with bloody protests against the president, led by then mayor Rajoelina who announced that he was now "in charge" of the country. The security forces opened fire on the protestors on 8 February killing at least 28 people. The president further responded by firing the younger man from his job as mayor sending him briefly into hiding.

The president has dismissed unrest against his rule saying that it violates democratic standards. Mr Rajoelina has also sought to portray himself as a democrat, leading a people's revolution.

However, neither man's democratic credentials bear much scrutiny. The president won re-election in a vote that independent observers believe was rigged and Mr Rajoelina has shown no willingness to await an election in order to take power.

The instability on the island has wrecked its valuable tourist income and endangered a multibillion pound nickel extraction project. It has not yet affected the interests of the Rio Tinto mining group who have significant holdings to the south of the vast island.