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Mauritanian military overthrows president

August 07, 2008|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — The elected president of Mauritania was ousted Wednesday in a bloodless military coup that appeared to spell the end for the Arab nation's experiment in democracy.

A council led by a military commander ousted President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and placed him and other government officials in the North African country under house arrest.

There were no reports of gunfire or violence. But Arabic news channels showed scenes of riot police firing tear gas and chasing civilians in the streets of Nouakchott, the capital.

The country's main airport was shut down, and soldiers in military vehicles stood outside government buildings, the reports said.

Democracy advocates condemned the move.

"The duly and fairly elected president was deposed by an unelected military figure," Les Campbell, Middle East and North Africa director for the National Democratic Institute, said in a telephone interview. His Washington-based nonprofit group promotes American-style democracy overseas.

"Mauritania has all the features of a potentially self- correcting democracy," he said. "The military shouldn't be stepping in. If there's a correction to be made, it should be made by the people."

The former French colony is a mostly desert nation of 3 million perched on Africa's northwestern corner. Poverty is widespread, with per capita income averaging less than $2 a day, though some hope the country can increase output from offshore oil wells that now yield about 75,000 barrels a day.

Mauritania made a dramatic step toward democratic rule after a bloodless 2005 coup that ousted longtime ruler Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya. The military junta that took over followed through on promises for Mauritania's first free and fair elections, which elevated Abdallahi to power in March 2007.

"What is going on in Mauritania is a coup d'etat organized by rebels who were sacked by the president on Wednesday morning," Abdullah Mamadouba, the official spokesman of the president, told Al Jazeera television. "It is a coup against the constitutional legitimacy in Mauritania."

U.S., European and African Union officials condemned the takeover.

"This was a constitutional government, democratically elected," U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters in Washington.

Mauritania is one of only three Arab nations to maintain formal ties with Israel, which has endeared it to Washington. Abdallahi also had cooperated closely with U.S. security forces in clamping down on self-proclaimed Al Qaeda cells in his country.

A suspected Al Qaeda attack in December left four French tourists dead. Al Qaeda activity spurred the cancellation in January of the annual transcontinental Dakar Rally, a car and motorcycle race that passes through Mauritania. That decision hurt tourism.

Abdallahi ran afoul of some leading military figures. He recently fired several, including the head of the presidential guard, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who led the drive against him. The new junta's first move was to rescind the firings.

"This coup comes as a form of protest to the president's earlier decision to sack the head of the presidential guard -- a move that the military establishment perceived as a threat to its position within the Mauritanian political system," said Ahmed Ibrahim Mahmoud, an analyst at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Critics also say that Abdallahi had performed poorly as president, accusing him of corruption and nepotism.

"The military thinks the coup would meet the demands of many sectors in the society that seem dissatisfied with the government," Mahmoud said.

In interviews on Arabic television, some opposition lawmakers hailed the coup. Mohammed Mukhtar Weld Kamel, one of 48 lawmakers who walked out of the ruling party Monday, told Al Jazeera that the president had not involved them in the decision-making.

Campbell said the military leaders were courting the opposition in hopes of legitimizing their coup.

Mahmoud said, "This coup shows that the military establishment considers itself the guardian of the democratic experience and holds for itself the right to intervene whenever the democratically elected government does not meet the demands of the masses."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Raed Rafei in Beirut and Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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