African Union suspends Madagascar

The African Union on Friday suspended Madagascar as the international community stepped up the pressure on the increasingly isolated island nation where the army forced the country’s president from power.

France, the former colonial power and Madagascar’s biggest donor, condemned the replacement of the nation’s president by an army-backed politician as a coup and the United States cut all non-humanitarian aid.

It was the first time that France had criticized the change of leadership since new leader Andry Rajoelina took power.

After months of street protests, Marc Ravalomanana resigned as Madagascar’s president Tuesday and placed power in the hands of the military. Within hours, the military announced it was making opposition leader Rajoelina the country’s new president.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy told journalists in Brussels that Madagascar’s president had been “toppled” and the new leadership’s move to suspend parliament was “not positive.”

The backlash against Madagascar began Thursday when countries in the southern Africa region said they will not recognize Rajoelina.

Rajoelina has accused his ousted rival of misspending public funds and undermining democracy. He says his rise was a victory for “true democracy” over dictatorship and has promised new elections within two years.

The AU’s second most important body, the Peace and Security Council, on Friday gave Madagascar six months to restore a constitutional government, probably through elections, said Bruno Nongoma Zidouemba, the council’s temporary chairman.

If it does not comply, the AU will consider imposing sanctions on the Indian Ocean island’s leaders, Zidouemba told reporters.

“The council is of the opinion that what’s occurred in Madagascar entered into the definition of an unconstitutional change of government,” said Zidouemba, Burkina Faso’s ambassador to the AU.

He said the AU had also asked foreign governments, including France, which had supported the new president, to stand by the AU’s position.

France has said two years was too long to wait for elections.

“I regret what happened in Madagascar,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told journalists in Brussels on Friday.

“I hold the new leaders responsible for the physical well-being of the former president (Marc Ravalomanana),” Sarkozy said. “Whatever he did, he must be judged if there is need. But you don’t take care of business like this.”

He said that he was not defending Ravalomanana, about whom, “many things can be said.”

Ravalomanana had accused Rajoelina of seeking power by unconstitutional means, since under the constitution the 34-year-old opposition leader was too young to become president.

U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington that the amount of aid to be suspended was not immediately clear. He called on the people of Madagascar to immediately take steps to restore constitutional rule.

In South Africa, the country’s defense minister said the Southern African Development Community would recommend sanctions against Madagascar.

“The sanctions must indeed send a clear signal that SADC does not tolerate this kind of thing,” Charles Nqakula, South Africa’s defense minister, told journalists in Pretoria.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.