More than 100 people have been killed, the majority at the hands of the security forces, in a wave of opposition protests against the rule of Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar's president, since the start of the year.

Military concerns

Army officers have expressed increasing unhappiness with the government's use of troops to suppress the protests, led by Andry Rajoelina, the opposition leader who has accused Ravalomanana of running a dictatorship while his people starve.

The army has already compelled Mamy Ranaivoniarivo, the defence minister, to resign, accusing him of "violence against the population" after he ordered soldiers to put down anti-government protests.

Soldiers at Camp Capsat, an army base located on the outskirts of Antananarivo, the Madagascan capital, have now refused to suppress anti-government protests.

Rasolofomahandry has vowed the army will "not take sides".

Mistakes admitted

Meanwhile, the president admitted on state television that he had "made mistakes" in his handling of the country's political crisis.

"This political crisis has to stop. I am ready to listen. I am human and I made mistakes," Ravalomanana said.

He called for a two-day national conference to try to bridge the divide between his government and the opposition.

There were further protests on Tuesday, with hundreds of pro-government protesters massing outside the French embassy, after France said it was sheltering opposition leader Rajoelina.

UN protection

"He has been at the French residence since Friday night, following a request from the international community and the UN mediator," a French diplomat said, adding that the move had been agreed with Ravalomanana.

A diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Rajoelina had left the embassy to hold meetings "in town", and that he was likely to head to the US embassy next.

Rajoelina, whose criticism of the government's economic and social policies has struck a chord with large portions of the population - more than half of Madagascar's 20 million people survive on less than $1 a day - is now under UN protection, saying he fears he will be arrested.

Drame Tiebile, a UN mediator who earlier confirmed that Rajoelina was under UN protection, said that he had been assured by Ravalomanana that the opposition leader would not be arrested.

In a further sign of the diplomatic fallout from the crisis, the US state department said it had "authorised the departure of non-emergency personnel and family members" from the US embassy in Antananarivo.