November 5, 2009 / 3:15 PM / in 8 years

Malawi threatens arrests over Madonna school row

<p>U.S. singer Madonna attends a ceremoney at a multi-million dollar girls' school she is building in Chinkota, outside Lilongewe in Malawi October 26, 2009.Siphiwe Sibeko</p>

LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawi threatened on Thursday to arrest protesting villagers blocking construction of Madonna's multi-million dollar girls academy, a new controversy for the singer in the African country where she has adopted two children.

About 140 villagers are demanding more money for land the government has leased to Madonna's charity -- Raising Malawi -- for 99 years.

District Commissioner for Lilongwe Charles Kalemba, other senior government officials and Raising Malawi failed to reach an agreement in talks with representatives of the villagers on Thursday in a bid to resolve the dispute.

"If we cannot agree on this and if you cannot understand that this is government land, then I will have no choice but tell police to arrest you people for blocking development work on the site, " Kalemba told the village chief, Chinkhota.

Madonna launched the construction of the school last month and pledged to build similar facilities in other countries if the project succeeds.

The Raising Malawi Academy for Girls -- in Chinkhota village about 15 km (10 miles) outside the capital Lilongwe -- is expected to be completed in two years and will admit 500 girls from the small southern African country's 28 districts. The construction is expected to cost $15 million.

Malawi's government came under fire after Madonna adopted 13-month-old boy, David Banda, in 2006, with critics accusing it of giving her special treatment by skirting laws that ban non-residents from adopting children.

In June this year, Malawi's Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling made in April which said Madonna could not adopt a four-year-old girl -- Mercy James -- because the singer was not a resident of the country.

An AIDS epidemic has left more than a million children orphaned in Malawi, a country of 13 million people.

"We are protesting because we feel government and Raising Malawi have not been fair ... earlier agreements about how much they were supposed to pay us have been scrapped and now we are being told the land does not belong to us," Chinkhota told Reuters after the meeting.

"The construction of this school will be affected if these problems are not resolved, my people are not given enough money for them to buy farm land somewhere else and continue their lives."

Ministry of Lands senior official Nector Mhura said compensation for the land was based on fair market prices.

Editing by Giles Elgood

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