Madagascan leader Andry Rajoelina and the man he toppled Marc Ravalomanana are set to hold landmark talks Wednesday to tackle the critical issues blocking the island's path to new elections.
Ahead of the talks, government sources said that Ravalomanana shook hands with Rajoelina on Tuesday on a remote island in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles, before their respective delegations began preliminary meetings.
Full face-to-face talks are expected to begin Wednesday on Desroches, a private island 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the main island, Mahe.
The two men have already held talks among the country's main political groups since the ouster of ex-president Ravalomanana by Rajoelina, a former mayor of the capital Antananarivo, in March 2009.
But they have previously avoided a one-on-one meeting.
Their subordinates have inked several pacts but have yet to find a permanent solution to the three-year crisis engulfing Africa's largest island.
Wednesday's meeting is likely to be just the first step to putting a lid on the crisis, and is unlikely to come up with a concrete deal, analysts said.
Solofo Randrianja, a political historian at the University in Tamatave, sees this as "a small but positive start, if it takes place".
The process to return to normalcy will be long and tedious, because it will be difficult for Rajeolina's administration to give up power, he cautioned.
The 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) has imposed a July 31 deadline for the rivals to settle their differences, so that a timetable for elections can be unveiled next week under a "roadmap" signed last year.
But one of the main obstacles to resolving the political woes is to establish conditions for Ravalomanana's eventual return from his exile in South Africa -- one of the conditions of the roadmap.
He has twice tried and failed to return to Madagascar.
"Rajoelina has always refused to meet Ravalomanana, so now I think he wants to find a way to end the crisis," said Juvence Ramasy, a political scientist at the University of Toamasina.
"The impact will only be political at first," but the rivals should come up with some sort of powersharing agreement, said Ramasy.
The Indian Ocean island has been mired in political crisis since Rajoelina ousted Ravalomanana in March 2009 with the army's support.
Rajoelina, a former disc jockey who was only 34 when he seized power, had to change the constitution to become eligible for the top job in future polls.
"A return to stability in Madagascar is crucial for all the countries in our southern and eastern Africa and Indian Ocean region," Seychelles President James Michel said in a speech Tuesday.
"Millions of people in Madagascar are sinking into extreme poverty. We have to act swiftly before the political crisis becomes a social catastrophe."
The roadmap signed in September provides for Ravalomanana's return home with no conditions.
But parliament has passed a law which bars people with criminal records from running for office and demands that any presidential aspirants must have paid their taxes in full, effectively excluding Ravalomanana.
In 2010, Ravalomanana was sentenced in absentia to life in prison and hard labour for the murders of around 30 demonstrators, killed by his presidential guard in 2009 protests that led to his overthrow.
Terms of a possible amnesty have roiled negotiations.
The Seychelles talks come three days after the army put down a mutiny at a military base near Madagascar's main airport, leaving three dead.
It's still not clear if the mutiny was tied to the political turmoil, as no demands were made.
South African President Jacob Zuma will be at the crunch talks at Desroches, a tropical beach paradise.
"It is important that both men take decisions for the nation and not for their personal interests. They must make concessions, otherwise (the meeting) will be useless," said Ernest Razafindraibe, head of Madagascar's electoral commission.
But Lalatiana Rakotondrazafy, station manager of opposition radio Free FM, is pessimistic that anything will come of the meeting.
"There won't be any solution from this meeting," Rakotondrazafy said. "They could never find one."
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Madagascar rivals to hold landmark talks in Seychelles