More than 100 killed in island protests

More than 100 people have been killed in civil unrest in Madagascar this week, the worst violence for years on the politically volatile Indian Ocean island, the US ambassador said yesterday.

Police had previously confirmed 44 deaths, with most of those in a store that was burnt during looting on Monday when an anti-government protest degenerated into violence.

"More than 100 are dead. I do not have exact figures," Niels Marquardt, the ambassador, said. The Mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, has been spearheading a week of demonstrations and strikes against President Marc Ravalomanana's government, which he accuses of turning Madagascar into a dictatorship.

The world's fourth largest island, with a population of 20 million, has a history of instability. Its latest crisis will hurt efforts to attract tourists and foreign investors.

Supporters of Mr Rajoelina were planning another mass rally today. Analysts say the 34-year-old firebrand politician has galvanised popular frustration, and Mr Ravalomanana is facing a serious threat to his grip on power.

Mr Rajoelina has said he is ready to lead the country, and opposition parties backed him yesterday. The African Union, the United States and former ruler France have called for calm and talks between the feuding sides.

Mr Rajoelina said he would hold talks with the President if they focused on creating a new government. "I have been asked that they take place on Saturday and I have accepted," he said.

Mr Ravalomanana, a 59-year-old self-made millionaire who started out hawking yoghurt on the capital's streets, has said, however, that talks should be unconditional.

After a general strike on Thursday, a degree of normalcy returned to the capital yesterday.

Also on Thursday, the President fired without explanation the national police chief General Lucien Raharijaona.

"It is not impossible that the head of state is looking for someone who will obey him and oppose Rajoelina's movement," said one gendarme officer on condition of anonymity.

Ties between Mr Ravalomanana and Mr Rajoelina deteriorated when the government shut the mayor's privately owned TV station in December.

Mr Ravalomanana has overseen a period of economic growth since coming to power in 2002. But many say he has not alleviated poverty.

Critics of Mr Ravalomanana accuse him of running the country like a private company, earning him the nickname "CEO of the Republic".