Didier Ratsiraka back in Madagascar, ends 11-year exile

Madagascar's former president Didier Ratsiraka returned home from France on Thursday, ending an 11-year exile that followed a bitter election dispute.

The 76-year-old is taking part in a national reconciliation conference ahead of polls set for July that aim to break the island's long-running political crisis.

"Everything must be discussed, everything can be discussed, without taboo," he told AFP in an interview, saying this included postponement of the election.

"We must put an end to this vicious cycle, and this crisis that has lasted too long, in which the people are the first victims, must end in one way or another," he said.

He would not say if he would be a candidate in the polls due July 24.

"This debate does not have to take place," he said.

The conference is being organised by the Ecumenical Council of the Christian churches of Madagascar to boost efforts to end the four year deadlock on the island.

Ratsiraka was president from 1975 to 1991 and again from 1996 to 2002, when he fled to France following a post-election dispute which sparked violence and chaos when he refused to concede defeat to Marc Ravalomanana.

The impasse split the vast island nation in two -- with two capitals, two governments, and a divided army -- until Ravalomanana was officially proclaimed president in May 2002.

In 2003, Ratsiraka was sentenced in absentia to hard labour, five years in jail for threatening state security and 10 years for embezzling public funds.

However, current president Andry Rajoelina, who took power in an army-backed coup in March 2009, had said several times that Ratsiraka was free to return home.

Ratsiraka had briefly returned to Madagascar in November 2011, but left after just two weeks.

Nicknamed "deba", Malagasy word for the boss or the bad guy, Ratsiraka also carried the moniker "Red Admiral."

Rajoelina and Ravalomanana -- who is prevented from returning home -- have opted to stay out of the 2013 race.

The churches conference was called to help establish dialogue among political parties and ease tension ahead of the elections.