Madagascar says it foiled bid to assassinate president, six arrested

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Madagascar said Thursday it had foiled an attempt to assassinate President Andry Rajoelina and arrested six people, two of whom according to diplomatic sources were French nationals.

"Several foreign and Madagascar nationals were arrested on Tuesday, July 20, as part of an investigation into an attack on state security," prosecutor Berthine Razafiarivony said in a statement.

"According to evidence in our possession, these individuals devised a plan to eliminate and neutralise various Madagascan figures, including the head of state," she said.

The statement gave no details about the alleged operation.

Public Security Minister Fanomezantsoa Rodellys Randrianarison said six arrests had been made, comprising "a foreigner, two dual nationals and three Madagascans."

"The police had information about this affair for months," he told a news conference on Thursday.

They swooped to make simultaneous arrests in different locations and seized money and weapons, he said.

"There are also official documents which prove their involvement," he said. "The foreigner hid his harmful schemes behind his business activity."

Two French nationals are among those who were arrested on Tuesday, diplomatic sources told AFP.

The two are retired military officers, according to the Taratra, a local news agency operation to the communications ministry.

A LinkedIn profile of one of those names describes him as the director of an investment company and as advisor to international investors in Madagascar.

The other individual named by Taratra is a French-Madagascan dual national who was an advisor to Rajoelina until 2011.

Rajoelina, 47, first seized power in March 2009 from Marc Ravalomanana with the backing of the military.

He won the last vote in December 2018, beating his main rival and predecessor Ravalomanana in an election beset by allegations of fraud.

- Troubled country -

Stretching across 587,000 square kilometres (nearly 227,000 square miles), Madagascar is the world's fourth largest island, bigger than Spain or Thailand in size.

The country is world-renowned for its unique wildlife and vanilla but has a long history of coups and unrest since gaining independence from France in 1960.

The announcement of the assassination plot comes after several months of turbulence and threats to journalists reporting on the country's coronavirus pandemic and a burgeoning famine in the south of the country.

On Madagascar's Independence Day celebrations on June 26, the gendarmerie announced they had foiled an assassination attempt on their boss, General Richard Ravalomanana, who is also Rajoelina's right-hand man.

In April, nine TV and radio programmes were blocked on the grounds that they were "liable to disturb public order and security and harm national unity."

Rivo Rakotovao, a former caretaker president, said he condemned any kind of assassination bid but feared that the announcement could be a precursor for a heavier hand by Rajoelina, who is already under fire for his grip on the levers of power.

"The situation should not be exploited to harm democracy in Madagascar," he told AFP.

- 'DJ' Rajoelina -

Rajoelina made his mark in events management and media before bursting on to the political scene in 2007.

Promoting a youthful, energetic image, he earned the nickname of "Disc Jockey," a reference to the parties he used to host in the capital Antananarivo.

After becoming the city's mayor, he used his own Viva broadcasting channel to help generate a national following, putting himself forward as the leading opponent to Ravalomanana.

In 2009, he came to power as leader of a transitional authority and pushed through a constitutional change that, among other things, lowered the minimum age for presidential candidates from 40 to 35, thus making him eligible to bid for the top job.

Under international pressure, Rajoelina did not contest the 2013 election and instead backed his victorious former finance minister, Hery Rajaonarimampianina.

The two quickly fell out, however. In December 2018, after hotly-contested elections in which he hosted lavish rallies with performance artists and fireworks.

Madagascar is heavily dependent on foreign aid, and nine out of 10 people live on less than $2 a day.

The country has virtually been under a lockdown since the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year and its southern region is in the grips of a famine.

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