SA in discussions with Ravalomanana
Johannesburg - Exiled Madagascan president Marc Ravalomanana is in discussions with President Jacob Zuma to decide the way forward after he was forced to return to South Africa on Saturday afternoon.
This was after the Madagascan airspace was closed an hour before his commercial flight was to land in the country's capital, his spokesperson Patrick Gearing said.
"Ravalomanana is very frustrated and upset because everything was supposed to be in place for him to return home," said Gearing.
"He is very saddened that the process seemed to be taking a step back. That is why he is in discussions with President Zuma and Deputy Minister of International Relations Marius Fransman," he said.
Refused to leave plane
Earlier, Ravalomanana refused to leave the aeroplane at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg until Zuma and Fransman became involved in negotiating with him to return to Pretoria.
He eventually left the aircraft at about 17:00. He was travelling with his wife Lalao, political aides and journalists.
Gearing said Ravalomanana and his wife will spend the night in Pretoria.
Ravalomanana had been forbidden from boarding a plane to Madagascar since he was ousted in a coup in 2009. He has lived in exile in South Africa ever since.
The South African government, through the Southern African Development Community has been working with Madagascar on a roadmap to democracy.
Key to this was allowing Ravalomanana back into the country.
Gearing said the exiled president attended a function with South African government leaders on Friday to thank them for his time in the country and to bid farewell.
Ravalomanana is expected to make a statement once current discussions with Zuma and Fransman are clearer, said Gearing.
AFP reports that the SA Airlink plane had just entered Madagascan airspace when an air marshal in a neon-yellow vest emerged from the cockpit to give the passenger in seat 1F the bad news.
Ravalomanana, the milkman-turned-millionaire who rose from obscurity to become president of Madagascar, only to be booted from power three years ago, would not be returning from exile in South Africa as planned.
As the small Avro RJ85 started banking in what felt unmistakably like a U-turn, snippets of the security officer's conversation with the overthrown president drifted toward the back of the plane.
The words "turn around" were clearly discernible, sending a crush of aides, journalists and curious fellow-passengers cramming into the aisle of the SA Airlink commercial flight to find out what was happening - in plain violation of the illuminated fasten seatbelt sign.
Amid the fray came a message from the cockpit.
"Ladies and gentlemen, from the flight deck, we have turned around. We've just received word the airport's going to be closed for the next five to six hours, and unfortunately due to a limited fuel supply we don't have the luxury of time, so I've now had to turn back to Johannesburg," said the captain.
"I apologise for the inconvenience this has caused you."
What had started as a joyful homecoming, with Ravalomanana kissing his wife as the plane taxied from the terminal, descended into a heated discussion between the ex-president's aides and the SA Airlink security officer.
The aides accused the airline of caving to pressure from Ravalomanana's arch-rival and replacement, Andry Rajoelina, to abort the former leader's politically charged return.
The air marshal insisted SA Airlink, a regional shuttle carrier affiliated with South African Airways, had done nothing of the sort.
"We intended to land in Antananarivo. We did not receive any NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) indicating otherwise," the official said.
"Why is the man being denied rights to his own people, to his own home country?" demanded an outraged adviser.
"How can they be so afraid of one plane to close all the airports in the country?" asked Ravalomanana spokesperson Mutumwa Mawere.
As the two-hour return trip dragged on, nerves began to calm.
A man in row four sighed that he would not be able to see his family that night. A passenger in row three placidly ate his lunch and sipped his red wine. A member of Ravalomanana's public relations team went back to reading his novel.
Four hours after take-off, the plane touched down back where it had started.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Johannesburg OR Tambo International Airport," said the flight attendant.
- Sapa and AFP