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Madagascar's president 'steps down'

Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana handed power to a navy admiral today after a power struggle with the opposition on the Indian Ocean island, a presidential aide said.

"The president has handed power to the military," spokesman Andry Ralijaona said. "In this case, it is the elder of the highest rank and I understand that is Hyppolite Ramaroson."

He said Ravalomanana had left his presidential palace and was at an undisclosed location. The spokesman said he believed the president had quit in the best interests of Madagascar.

"I would imagine it was because of his analysis of the situation and he came to the conclusion this is best for the country. He behaved as a statesman," Ralijaona said.

Weeks of turmoil and protests, led by young opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, have killed 135 people on Madagascar, crippled tourism and scared foreign investors in the mining and oil exploration sectors.

Rajoelina led supporters into the presidential palace in Antananarivo on Tuesday after a rally in which he declared eight of Ravalomanana's ministers had resigned due to the crisis.

Presidential guards and hundreds of supporters are protecting Ravalomanana at another palace which is his residence on the outskirts of Antananarivo. He had vowed to fight to the death if pro-opposition soldiers try to drive him from power.

Yesterday, Madagascar's traditionally neutral army threw its weight behind Rajoelina and stormed a presidential palace in the heart of Antananarivo. It also seized the central bank.

Rajoelina, a 34-year-old former disc jockey and sacked mayor of Antananarivo, has been calling for Ravalomanana's resignation since the start of 2009 and now wants him arrested. He calls the president a dictator running Madagascar like a private firm.