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It began with elements of farce: a feud between two tycoons who both declared themselves the ruler of the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. But it ended in tragedy, with deadly gunfire that left at least 28 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

Security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters in Madagascar's capital city on Saturday, leaving the hospitals filled with wounded survivors. Local media said it was one of the worst bloodbaths in the country since its independence in 1960.

The weekend violence was the latest brutal chapter in a long saga of power struggle in Madagascar, the world's fourth-biggest island, known to tourists as a biological paradise and home to creatures found nowhere else in the world.

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Violent disputes and political battles have plagued the nation for years.

The latest clashes began on Jan. 26 with anti-government rallies that erupted into riots. Protesters destroyed factories, shops and a television station belonging to the President. Close to 100 people died in the chaos.

On one side of the struggle is the 59-year-old President, Marc Ravalomanana, a powerful tycoon who owns the biggest domestic business empire in the country.

Born in an impoverished village, he sold yogurt in the streets of the capital, then borrowed money from the World Bank and a Protestant church to set up his first factory. He ended up with a monopoly on dairy and oil products in the country, along with a chain of radio and television stations.

He was declared the winner of the 2001 presidential election, which triggered a violent campaign of resistance by the incumbent, Didier Ratsiraka. This left the country divided, with two governments and two capitals. That conflict did not end until 2002.

On the other side of the latest struggle is Andry Rajoelina, the 34-year-old former mayor of Tananarive, the national capital. He is a former disc jockey, an entertainment entrepreneur, and the owner of a private television station - a charismatic populist who has denounced the government as a dictatorship. After becoming mayor in 2007, he stepped up his attacks on the President. When his TV station was taken off the air for broadcasting an interview with Mr. Ratsiraka, he accused the government of suppressing free speech.

For months, Mr. Rajoelina has been campaigning against the President, exploiting popular discontent and condemning him as a thief and an autocrat. After the clashes turned violent, Mr. Rajoelina declared himself the ruler of Madagascar. He ordered the government to shut down - an order that was widely ignored.

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Mr. Ravalomanana retaliated by sacking his rival as the mayor of the capital and appointing a new mayor. But the stakes escalated when Mr. Rajoelina continued the protests and announced that he had appointed a "transition authority" to take power in the country, with himself as the president.

As he visited the wounded victims of the gunfire by the security forces, Mr. Rajoelina vowed yesterday to keep fighting against the government. "The struggle continues," he said. "The people need change. What is Ravalomanana's answer? Shots."

The government, meanwhile, announced that it has issued arrest warrants for "those responsible for the unrest and looting." Security forces set up roadblocks and patrolled the streets, while the nightly curfew was extended for another week. The capital was reported to be calm.

Madagascar, a country of 20 million people, is one of the poorest in the world. But it is rich in minerals and natural resources, and Canadian investors have descended on the country to seek their fortune.

One of Canada's top mining companies, Sherritt International, has invested heavily in the island nation. The Toronto-based company owns 40 per cent of the $3.3-billion Ambatovy nickel mine in Madagascar.

Niko Resources Ltd., a Calgary-based company, is developing an offshore oil and gas field in Madagascar.

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