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AU Reacts Cautiously to Madagascar's Political Strife

African Union is carefully avoiding taking sides in Madagascar's bitter political struggle. But Madagascar's ambassador to the continental body is calling the situation a coup d'etat that requires an immediate resolution.

Amid word of rebel soldiers storming a presidential residence in Madagascar, the AU Peace and Security Council issued bland words calling for constitutional order.

The Council president for March, Benin's AU ambassador Edouard Aho-Glele told reporters that the government and rebellious soldiers should negotiate.

"The Council called on the parties in Madagascar to dialogue," said Edouard Aho-Glele.

Madagascar's AU Ambassador Jean-Pierre Rakotoarivony pressed the Council in a closed door session to condemn what he called a coup d'etat, and to endorse President Ravalomanana's call for a nationwide referendum on whether he should remain in office. The envoy said Mr. Ravalomanana would step down immediately if he were to lose a vote of confidence.

"It is this referendum that says simply, 'Yes or no," he said. "If ever they say, 'no,' we don't want you any more, that's finished. Right away we are having election."

But the Council president, Ambassador Aho-Glele, made clear that the African Union has no plans to get involved in Madagascar's political struggle.

"We don't explore that possibility of a referendum," said Aho-Glele. "We are not dictating to Madagascar to organize a referendum if it is consistent with the constitution of Madagascar, so be it."

News reports from Madagascar say opposition leader Andry Rajoelina earlier rejected the proposed referendum, saying the people had already spoken and that Mr. Ravalomanana must resign.

But Ambassador Rakotoarivony predicted the president would win a referendum and said Rajoelina knows it.

"They cannot risk having a referendum, because they are sure they will not win in case of a referendum," he said.

The ambassador said he regretted that the Council had declined to characterize the uprising as a coup.

"It's a coup d'etat, but nobody would recognize a coup d'etat," said Ambassador Rakotoarivony. "But it was a coup d'etat. It failed."

Hanging in the balance could be Madagascar's AU membership and its bid to host the organizations next summit in July.

In an attempt to bolster its image, the AU has begun suspending the membership of any country where the government has been ousted by extraconstitutional means. Two member states - Guinea and Mauritania - recently were suspended after the military took power.

Madagascar's summit bid could also be marred if the unrest continues. Diplomats say a decision must be made soon on whether the summit will have to be moved. Speculation for a replacement site is centering on Libya, whose leader Moammar Gadhafi currently holds the AU presidency.