Talks on Madagascar's political impasse have opened in Addis Ababa with a plea for rival factions to put aside mutual animosities for the sake of the country's economic survival. The atmosphere was tense as leaders of Madagascar's four main political movements met for a fourth round of negotiations on formation of a transitional government.
Madagascar's de-facto President Andry Rajoelina sat at one side of the large African Union plenary hall. The man he ousted as president earlier this year, Marc Ravalomana sat on the opposite side.
There was no ceremonial handshake, not even a sign the bitter rivals recognized each other's presence.
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Two other former presidents, Didier Ratsiraka and Albert Zafy were also in the room as African Union Chairman Jean Ping reminded them of the economic and psychological harm being inflicted on the people of Madagascar by their prolonged political impasse.
"The reality as you know it on the ground in Madagascar is characterized by fatigue that is felt by the people of Madagascar, people who are hoping the crisis will come to an end. A crisis to which, after all, they are the hostages. Whereas the socio-economic situation in your country is getting worse day by day. The people of Madagascar deserve better destiny and that depends completely on you," Mr. Ping said.
The AU chief told the four factions they would be harshly judged if they fail to find a compromise on formation of a transitional government that leads to fresh elections next year. "The responsibility of each one of you before history is clear and no consideration, no matter how legitimate it may be, could be allowed to be more important than the interest of Madagascar as a whole. So the time has come to operationalize the transitional institutions so the transition can become a reality," he said.
But comments by the rival leaders before the meeting indicate difficult days ahead in the closed sessions. The youthful Mr. Rajoelina was quoted as saying before he left Antananarivo that he would not make any concessions on top of those already made in previous meetings in the Mozambican capital Maputo. Mr. Ravalomana said earlier he would not negotiate unless President Rajoelina stepped aside.
Former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano, who served as mediator during previous rounds of talks, flew into the Ethiopian capital to continue in that role. A.U. sources said he immediately went into meetings with negotiators.
The 82-year old former president Albert Zafy, in his role as a senior statesman, apologized in advance to the A.U. assembly and urged the international community not to give up on Madagascar for what he called 'irresponsible behavior' by leaders, including himself. "We hope today you will not abandon the Malagasy people even if there might be irresponsible behavior which will be expressed here and there by us. Maybe I will be part of those that will be involved in such actions, but we will try to deserve the efforts you have put into place," he said.
The talks are expected to continue through Thursday, though African diplomats said it would not be surprising if more time is needed.
Mr. Rajoelina ousted President Ravalomana last March with the help of Madagascar's military. Mr. Rajoelina formed his own administration in September, after earlier negotiations failed to agree on who would hold what position in a transitional government.
Both the African Union and the Southern African Development Community have refused to recognize Mr. Rajoelina as president.