Potential Hot Spots: June 22, 2002


The civil war in Madagascar is becoming more like a Frederick Forsyth novel with each passing day. Raymond Ramandimbilahatra, a spokesperson for Madagascar's President Marc Ravalomanana, told the press on 21 June that "three helicopters left this morning from East London, in South Africa, with 36 mercenaries on board destined for the island of Sainte-Marie. They have orders to carry out "Operation Toro" which is meant to disrupt Independence Day festivities on June 26 and to assassinate President Marc Ravalomanana." Ramandimbilahatra called on the people of Madagascar to stay calm but vigilant and to keep watch along their coastlines and across the country, since the helicopters would have to make several refueling stops before reaching their final destination. 

He said the operation was commanded and financed "by an African head of state and was code-named "Toro" (the 'nom de guerre' of a general loyal to Ratsiraka).
Bruno Ranarivelo, Madagascar's consul general in Johannesburg, told the Beeld newspaper that a group of South Africans could already be in Madagascar disguised as security guards and preparing a coup against Ravalomanana. 

Furthermore, on the night of the 21st, Ravalomanana told the press that at least three mercenaries from the Ukraine had been intercepted at Johannesburg International Airport. The South African Department of Foreign Affairs said that it had no knowledge of allegations that South African mercenaries were on their way to assassinate Ravolomanana. Civil aviation officials in South Africa likewise expressed surprise at the report, saying there was no unusual traffic in their airspace on the 21st.

A dozen French mercenaries were reportedly heading to embattled Madagascar on the 19th, having left Paris's Le Bourget airport earlier that day aboard a Falcon 900. 
The plane stopped in Dar es Salaam to refuel and its occupants told Tanzanian authorities they were bound for Madagascar. The official flight plan said the aircraft would pick up a delegation of Ratsiraka's associates from Toamasina (a port on Madagascar's east coast where Ratsiraka has set up a parallel government) and take them to Addis Ababa. An Organization of African Unity (OAU) is due to hold a summit meeting on Madagascar on the 21st. Ratsiraka left Madagascar for France last week.

However, the group was instead blocked in Tanzania and then forced back to France. 
A Kenyan newspaper reported that all 15 passengers were taken to Royal Palm Hotel until the issue was sorted out. The French government then asked Tanzania to order the plane back to Paris because the passengers were illegal. The plane left Dar-es-Salaam at around 1715 GMT.

A senior Madagascar army source loyal to Ravalomanana said that the mercenaries were led by Marc Garibaldi, a former French soldier who has worked as a mercenary in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Cote d'Ivoire. Other sources in France claimed that Mr Garibaldi was at his French home on the 19th. One unnamed foreign observer in Madagascar quipped that "this ridiculous team of mercenaries could ruin all the OAU's diplomatic efforts and it shows that Admiral Ratsiraka, if he is truly in charge, is ready to do anything not to lose face." 

A sea battle was meanwhile being fought overnight on the 18th/19th by the two forces, when a small coastal ship requisitioned by one of Ratsiraka's commando units intercepted a merchant vessel full of Ravalomanana's men and opened fire on it with an anti-aircraft gun. Ravalomanana's boat was heading to Nosy Be, a small tourist resort isle off the northwestern coast. One of Ravalomanana's senior officers admitted that the battle continued into the morning, adding that they were "not hit, but we only had automatic weapons to reply with". In the town of Ambanja, troops from both sides faced off across a bridge and exchanged gunfire sporadically. Both sides have sent reinforcements to Ambaja over the previous two days.

Meanwhile, half of Madagascar's capital was left without electricity or water after a power line blew up on the 21st. Three pylons were blown up between Antananarivo and a hydro-electric plant at Andekaleka, 90 miles (150 kilometers) east of the capital and officials suspected an act of sabotage. An unnamed expert told AFP that there were just a few thermal plants left but their fuel reserves were almost exhausted and if the pylons are not repaired by the 22nd (which seemed unlikely), electricity in the whole city will be cut. 

State radio also carried unconfirmed reports that clashes between Ravalomanana's forces and soldiers loyal to Ratsiraka in the northern province of Antsiranana had resulted in dozens of dead on both sides. Ravalomanana loyalists said they had taken control of most of Nosy Be early on the 21st. - Adam Geibel


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