ANTANANARIVO (AFP) — Madagascan police shot dead at least 23 supporters of opposition leader Andry Rajoelina Saturday as they tried to march on a palace of President Marc Ravalomanana during a protest.
The new escalation in the weeks-old power struggle between the ousted mayor of Antananarivo and Ravalomanana came after the opposition announced a rival "transition authority" with Rajoelina in charge.
"There are 23 dead and 83 wounded at the Joseph Andravahangy Andrianavalona hospital," Jaona Andrianaivo, head of the Antananarivo fire brigade, told AFP.
According to AFP reporters on the scene, a group of demonstrators attending a rally in the capital started marching towards Ambohitsorohitra Palace after facing off with security forces for an hour.
A first cordon of anti-riot police retreated when the protesters advanced but a second one closer to the presidential compound then opened fire with live bullets.
Sporadic gunfire was still heard near the palace at 7:00 pm (1600 GMT) as security forces tried to control looters who managed to break into a nearby hotel and offices.
"Considering the institutional vacuum created by the dismissal procedure launched against the president... Andry Rajoelina is appointed as chairman of the transition high authority," an aide of the opposition leader had told the rally earlier.
Rajoelina himself said all of the vast island's regions would be represented in the transitional body and announced that Roindefo Monja, a politician from the southwestern city of Tulear, was his new prime minister.
The 34-year-old former DJ, who accuses Ravalomanana of being a dictator, had late last month proclaimed himself in charge of the country's affairs, charging that the president and his government had abandoned the people.
Rajoelina has launched a case to legally remove Ravalomanana with the two houses of parliament and the constitutional court, which has already declared it is not competent to rule on the matter.
The president on Saturday called for a return to order.
"I call on the security forces and the population to lend a hand in re-establishing calm and order in Antananarivo and in the whole of Madagascar," he said in a nationally-televised address.
"The other camp has crossed all limits," he added.
Prime Minister Charles Rabemananjara, meanwhile, announced on state television that a night curfew, already in force in the capital, would be extended by a week.
Britain's Foreign Office issued a travel advisory and said it was "monitoring the situation in Madagascar closely."
Ravalomanana has kept a fairly low profile since the start of the crisis, insisting simply he was still in charge and relieving Rajoelina from his duties as mayor of Antananarivo four days ago.
Saturday's demonstration started peacefully but tension mounted when Rajoelina urged his supporters to march on Ambohitsorohitra Palace, which used to belong to the mayor until Ravalomanana took power in 2002 and began using it.
"This palace belongs to the people and to the city. I have decided to give it to the prime minister," Rajoelina said.
Rajoelina has echoed widespread popular grievances concerning shrinking civil liberties, controversial economic decisions by the president and a general slump in purchasing power.
At least 68 people died late last month when looting and rioting broke out after a protest.
Madagascar's main foreign donors have meanwhile suspended budgetary aid pending clarification of the management of public funds, European Union envoy Jean-Claude Boidin said Friday, while adding it was not connected to the island's power struggle.
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