The Madagascan authorities shut down a key airport on Saturday, effectively barring the return of an exiled opposition leader, who promptly called for a retaliatory general strike on the Indian Ocean island.
Amid fears of potential unrest, police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of supporters of Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, a former deputy prime minister, at the airport in Toamasina, formerly called Tamatave.
Toamasina officials canceled all flights from the airport in the key eastern city until Jan. 7, effectively barring Rajaonarivelo from taking part in a presidential election scheduled for December.
The former minister had planned to fly in to attend a convention of his opposition AREMA party ahead of a Dec. 3 election in which he hopes to challenge President Marc Ravalomanana.
Rajaonarivelo, who has spent five years in French exile, appealed from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion for "mobilization and a general strike."
In August a Madagascan court sentenced the politician in absentia to 15 years' hard labor for embezzlement and he risks arrest if he attempts to return.
Rajaonarivelo denies the charges and his lawyers are appealing against the verdict, which they say was politically motivated to prevent him from standing in the election.
The politician had been in transit in Reunion, a French territory, and had been planning to fly to Madagascar on Saturday.
But the flight was canceled when it was announced that the Toamasina airport would be closed until Jan. 7, 2007.
"[This is] to keep me from returning to the country," the politician protested.
He urged political leaders to join him "to call together for the resignation of Ravalomanana."
Although local media said only around 1,000 supporters had gathered at the airport to welcome him, Rajaonarivelo spoke of "more than 50,000 people coming to Tamatave to welcome me".
"This is the wind of liberty blowing through [Madagascar] and it will blow everywhere," he said.
Rajaonarivelo's entourage pre-dicted their leader would return to Madagascar in the next few days.
A senior member of his party warned the hastily announced airport closure would seriously affect the Toamasina regional economy.
"This is tantamount to economic strangulation," said Dauphin Koto, a local AREMA senator.
But he said the party would not provoke unrest.
"We don't want any violence, we don't want any trouble," said Koto as the crowd at the airport, wearing red party colors, chanted "peace, peace" and sang the national anthem.
There were no injuries and most of the supporters left the scene.