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Madagascan president steps down

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar, March 17 (UPI) -- Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana said Tuesday he is stepping down in the face of mass opposition protests and an armed rebellion.

Ravalomanana, under siege in his residence on the outskirts of the capital Antananarivo, handed over power to the military, telling the nation in a radio broadcast, "After deep reflection, I have decided to dissolve the government and give up power so that a military directorate can be established," the Financial Times reported.

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Military leaders, however, were reported to be pushing for a direct transfer of power to 34-year-old opposition leader Andry Rajoelina, who installed himself in presidential offices that were seized on Monday by mutinying troops, the BBC said.

The broadcaster reported it is unclear whether the generals chosen by Ravalomanana to head the military directorate are actually willing or able to take over, with unconfirmed reports circulating that those generals had been arrested.

Rajoelina, a former disc jockey, emerged from the presidential offices and participated in a triumphant parade among thousands of supporters, announcing there will be a new constitution and elections within 24 months, the BBC said.

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The African Union quickly issued a statement saying the military should refrain from handing power to the opposition and has strongly condemned any unconstitutional transfer of power, the Voice of America reported.

Tuesday's events culminated a seven-week power struggle between Rajoelina and Ravalomanana that has seen mutiny, violent protests and the deaths of at least 100 people since January.

Rajoelina said Ravalomanana, elected in 2006 to a second term that expires in 2011, no longer could run the country, accusing the leader of being a tyrant who is misspending the public's money, among other things, the British broadcaster said.

Rajoelina on Monday rejected a proposal from Ravalomanana calling for referendum on whether he should complete his term. The opposition leader instead called for the arrest of the president and won the backing from the self-declared military leader.

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