JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Madagascar's ousted president left South Africa Saturday after three years in exile, saying he wanted to help restore peace and democracy in his Indian Ocean island homeland and that he did not fear possible arrest.
Marc Ravalomanana sat next to his wife in the front row of the commercial South African Airways flight. Journalists and aides accompanied the couple. Earlier in the airport, his wife, Lalao, gave a subdued thumbs up.
Security officials in Madagascar, where the populist former disc jockey who ousted Ravalomanana still wields great power, have said the toppled president will be arrested if he returns. Ravalomanana said arresting him would be unlawful and would destabilize Madagascar at a delicate time in efforts to restore democracy.
When Ravalomanana tried to return last year, he was stopped at the Johannesburg airport after aviation authorities in Madagascar wrote to say he was not welcome.
Saturday, thousands of supporters awaited Ravalomanana at the airport in Madagascar's capital. The flight to Antananarivo, Madagascar took off from Johannesburg just after 10 a.m. and was scheduled to take three hours.
Following Andry Rajoelina's military-backed coup, Ravalomanana was convicted in absentia of conspiracy to commit murder in a case related to the turmoil during the overthrow that forced him to leave. Ravalomanana called the tribunal appointed by Rajoelina illegitimate.
Late Friday, South Africa's deputy foreign minister Marius Fransman, who has led regional efforts to restore democracy in Madagascar, issued what could be read as a warning to Ravalomanana not to return, or to Rajoelina not to seek his rival's arrest.
Fransman noted "the current contextual challenges relating to the political situation in Madagascar," but did not elaborate. Then he said he was calling "on all the political formulations and the political leadership, in particular ... Mr. Andry Rajoelina and former President Mr. Marc Ravalomanana to exercise political maturity."
Asked at the Johannesburg airport about Fransman's comments, Ravalomanana said, "We are mature."
Ravalomanana has accepted a plan negotiated by Fransman that calls for elections next year overseen by a unity government. The unity government is in place, with Rajoelina as its president, but members are bickering over how positions were filled.
Friday, Ravalomanana told reporters he would work with anyone, including Rajoelina, to "build a new Madagascar." But he acknowledged Rajoelina has rebuffed his overtures.
The Ravalomanana-Rajoelina rivalry is a particularly bitter example of a long history of strong men vying for power in Madagascar since independence from France in 1960. The political influence of the security forces is strong.
For months before the coup, Rajoelina led rallies against Ravalomanana, whom he accused of being out of touch with the sufferings of the country's impoverished majority.
Ravalomanana's government at one point blocked the signal of a radio station Rajoelina owned. In response, Rajoelina supporters set fire to a building in the government broadcasting complex as well as an oil depot, a shopping mall and a private TV station linked to Ravalomanana. Scores of people were killed.
Days later, soldiers opened fire on anti-government protesters, killing at least 25. The incident cost Ravalomanana much of the support of the military, which blamed him for the order to fire at demonstrators.
Friday, Ravalomanana told reporters he had nothing to do with orders to close the radio station or fire on demonstrators. Ravalomanana added that if he were to regain power, he would put into practice what he said he had learned during exile in South Africa about respecting the rule of law and freedom of expression. South Africa saw brutal white minority rule peacefully toppled in 1994 and multiracial democracy installed through negotiations and power-sharing.
"We cannot solve this crisis in Madagascar without genuine dialogue," Ravalomanana said.
Associated Press reporters Jerome Delay in Johannesburg and Lova Soarabary in Antananarivo, Madagascar contributed to this report.