ANTANANARIVO, Mar 17 – Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana resigned on Tuesday, diplomats said, bowing to the inevitable after the army blasted its way into his offices and let the opposition leader take control.
Diplomats told AFP on condition of anonymity that the 59-year-old Ravalomanana signed a document transferring authority over the Indian Ocean island to a board of high-ranking military officials.
The move marked a dramatic victory for Andry Rajoelina, the sacked mayor of Antanarivo who has been leading a months-long push to topple Ravalomanana after seven years as president.
Rajoelina was cheered by thousands of supporters and saluted by the army as he took over a deserted presidency, while his long-time rival was holed up in the presidential palace with a handful of diehard loyalists.
"The order signed by Ravalomanana transfers the powers of the president and the prime minister to a military board," said one diplomat.
A text message sent by the French consulate to the expatriate community read: "President resigns, risk of demonstrations. Remain cautious and avoid driving after dark."
The proposed life span of military rule on the island and other details of the arrangement were not immediately known.
The 34-year-old Rajoelina was already behaving like the country’s new ruler however when he entered the deserted presidential compound in the city centre in the wake of a spectacular night-time assault by the army backed by around 100 tanks.
"I solemnly declare that I will not spare any effort," he said, proclaiming that the transitional authority he set up last month was in charge of the country’s affairs.
"We are now free but the road ahead remains rough," he added, as Christian clerics conducted ceremonies in the presidential compound to mark the occasion.
The army’s move on the compound on Monday night effectively sealed the president’s fate, after a protracted political feud with Rajoelina that flared up late last year and left around 100 people dead.
Ravalomanana’s whereabouts following his resignation were not immediately clear but speculation has abounded for days that he might flee into exile.
Most of his family already left when he lost control of the army last week.
The president had been in defiant mood until Monday and attempted to dispel intense speculation that he would go into exile, according to presidential spokesman Andry Ralijaona.
"I am staying with you and if I have to die, I will die with you," the spokesman quoted Ravalomanana as telling his remaining guards in the palace.
"The president is still in Iavoloha. He is saddened by what is happening," Ralijaona told AFP.
After the army and part of his own guard turned against him last week, Ravalomanana proposed a referendum to decide his feud with Rajoelina.
Rajoelina rejected the offer Monday and the army made it clear which side it is backing. "We seized the presidency to hasten Ravalomanana’s departure," the army chief said on Monday.
Rajoelina, a 34-year-old DJ-turned-businessman who has led popular opposition to the government, has urged the country’s security forces to arrest the president for "high treason".
Rajoelina, accusing his rival of being a dictator starving his people, has used his charisma and own private television station to mount a brazen challenge on the country’s top office.
Ravalomanana said in a statement Monday that Rajoelina’s claim to power was illegitimate and argued that his rejection of a last-ditch offer for a referendum to decide the outcome was tantamount to "supporting anarchy".
On Monday, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council convened an emergency meeting over the crisis and warned it would condemn any unconstitutional change of power.
Another meeting was due to kick off at the continental body’s headquarters in Addis Ababa at 1300 GMT.