Madagascar's ex-leader ends exile, urges reconciliation
Madagascar's former president Didier Ratsiraka returned home Thursday, ending a nine-year exile in France, and urged reconciliation to resolve the country's long-running political crisis.
Ratsiraka arrived three days after a unity government was unveiled with the aim of ending a protracted political crisis that has seen the island nation isolated by regional blocs and the international community.
"There should be a conference not just by the four main political leaders, but all the other parties and civil society groups must be involved," Ratsiraka said upon arrival.
"There's need for reconciliation... I will shake everybody's hands in the overall interest of the nation," he added. "The government says it wants to reach out, I'm reaching out in return."
His return offers hope of ending the turmoil, especially after two main opposition groups led by two other former presidents agreed to join the unity government unveiled Monday by consensus Prime Minister Omer Beriziky.
The 75-year-old Ratsiraka has however declined to sign a deal mediated by a regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to resolve the crisis.
Exiled president Marc Ravalomanana, ousted in 2009, welcomed Ratsiraka's return, calling it "proof that Madagascar is irrevocably on the path to change".
Praising the man he pushed from power back in 2002, Ravalomanana said Ratsiraka "is a son of Madagascar and he deserves to be home to make his contribution in leading our country back to the peace and democracy it so richly deserves."
The end of Ratsiraka's exile showed, he said, the "unstoppable progress" towards free elections next year, laid out in a roadmap by the SADC.
"Of course the next major event in Madagascar will be my own return in terms of the same provision which has allowed (former) president Ratsiraka to return," said Ravolamanana, who currently lives in South Africa.
Ratsiraka, who was accompanied by his wife and two daughters and welcomed by aides at the capital's airport, kissed the ground on his arrival.
Hundreds of supporters gathered outside the airport dressed in red, the colour of his political party, and waving flags to welcome him home.
Ratsiraka was president from 1975 to 1991 and again from 1996 to 2002.
He fled to France following a seven-month election dispute which sparked violence and chaos when he refused to concede defeat to Ravalomanana.
The impasse split the vast island nation in two -- with two capitals, two governments, and a divided army -- until Ravalomanana was officially proclaimed president in May 2002.
In 2003, Ratsiraka was sentenced in absentia to hard labour, five years in jail for threatening state security and 10 years for embezzling public funds.
However, current president Andry Rajoelina, who ousted Ravalomanana in an army-backed coup in March 2009, has said several times that Ratsiraka was free to return home.
On Wednesday, Ravalomanana's party and that of another ex-president, Albert Zafy, agreed to take up cabinet posts in the new 35-member government.
The two parties had initially rejected that government on grounds that it was not formed in accordance with the SADC-brokered accord.
All Madagascar's leaders -- Ratsiraka, Zafy, Ravalomanana and Rajoelina -- have played key roles in the country's turbulent political history.
Ratsiraka's long reign was broken in 1991 by a popular movement that forced him into exile in France for the first time, but he returned four years later and defeated Zafy in elections.
Six years on, his attempts to cling to power plunged the country into chaos, eventually forcing him again to seek refuge in exile in a posh Paris suburb.
Ravolomanana's rule crumbled when young Antananarivo disc jockey and opposition leader Rajoelina led weeks of sometimes bloody protests against him.
Differences between Rajoelina and the three former presidents often frustrated the SADC-led negotiations to steer Madagascar back to normalcy.
In a show of solidarity, supporters of Zafy and Ravalomanana turned up at the airport Thursday to welcome Ratsiraka.
While Ratsiraka can count on the current leader's word of welcome, the return of Ravalomanana remains uncertain as he faces life in prison back home after being sentenced in absentia for the killing of protestors.
The SADC agreement that set up a power-sharing deal allowed the return of Ravlomanana. It also maintains Rajoelina's presidency until elections are held.
© 2011 AFP