Antananarivo - Dozens of suspects on trial over the lynching of two Europeans and a local man told a Madagascar court on Tuesday that they intervened to protect the victims from a raging mob.
Thirty-seven defendants stand accused of involvement in the bludgeoning to death and torching of the trio on Nosy Be, the idyllic Indian Ocean island off the northwest of Madagascar, two years ago.
Acting on false rumours of foreign involvement in the death of an eight-year-old local boy and a paedophilia connection, a mob attacked French tourist Sebastien Judalet and Franco-Italian resident Roberto Gianfalla and beat them before burning them on a beach.
Residents of Nosy Be went on the rampage overnight on October 2, 2013 after the boy, who had been missing for a week, was found dead on a beach.
Ben Amiri Zakaria said he had stayed up from 23:00 to 05:00 trying to calm the crowd while waiting for police to arrive.
"I wanted to protect the vazahas," said the 27-year-old mechanic, using the Malagasy word for Westerners.
"At 05:00 am the police had not come. I am not a machine, I was tired, I went home. I woke up around 10:00 and that's when I learnt that of the death of the vazahas."
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Another suspect, Vavy Louisa, a restaurant manager, said she simply played the role of interpreter for Judalet after five villagers had sought an explanation from him.
"I wanted to protect Sebastien. He grabbed my arm and begged me, 'Help me madam'," the 39-year-old told the court.
If convicted, the suspects, charged with the murder and kidnapping of the trio, could face life behind bars.
Marcellin Tomboravo, a sailor who was accused of carrying one of the two Europeans on a cart and of tossing the body into fire, said he was too scared of the mob to not carry out its instruction.
"I was too scared. I couldn't refuse to carry the vazaha," the 33-year-old said.
Judalet and Gianfalla were beaten and torched in front of a crowd of around 100 people, according to images captured by some of the residents.
Hours later, the uncle of the missing boy was also killed on the beach, which is renowned for its crystal clear beaches but also notorious for child prostitution.
Gianfalla, a former French cook, was living in Madagascar at the time of his death. Judalet worked as a bus driver in France and regularly vacationed in Madagascar.
The defendants - including 35 civilians and two policemen - have been charged with a range of offences from murder and kidnapping to vandalism. All have pleaded not guilty.
Five of the defendants testified on Monday while 14 gave evidence on Tuesday.
The trial continues on Wednesday.