Madagascar's former president Didier Ratsiraka (centre) has returned home after an extended exile in France. File photo: Gregoire Pourtier, AFP

Antananarivo -

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 ex-leader expressed a “sense of relief and happiness” to be back.

“It has been 11 years that I have not been here,” he said in brief remarks to reporters at the airport before being driven away to attend a national reconciliation conference.

The conference is being organised by the Ecumenical Council of the Christian churches of Madagascar to boost efforts to end the protracted political 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 ousted Ravalomanana 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”.

The churches conference was called to help establish dialogue among political parties and ease tension ahead of the July presidential elections amid hopes that the ballot will end the long-running crisis and restore the island to constitutional order. - Sapa-AFP