Mauritania

Pressure mounts on Mauritania army after coup

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By Ibrahima Sylla
NOUAKCHOTT, Aug 4 (Reuters) - The African Union suspended Mauritania on Thursday after army officers seized power in an apparently bloodless coup, adding to international pressure on the new rulers of the West African country.

The United Nations, former colonial power France and the United States -- whose military has been training Mauritania's troops to fight Islamic militants thought to be operating in the Sahara desert -- have all condemned Wednesday's swift takeover in a country straddling black and Arab Africa.

The officers said a "Military Council for Justice and Democracy" would rule for up to two years to end the "totalitarian" regime of President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, who was out of the country after attending King Fahd's funeral in Saudi Arabia.

Later on Thursday, Mauritania's new military rulers dissolved parliament, state radio said.

The 53-nation African Union firmly denounced the coup and demanded the "restoration of constitutional order".

The U.S. and French ambassadors to Mauritania met the head of the 17-member council, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall on Thursday.

A U.S. State Department official said Ambassador Joseph LeBaron demanded Taya be restored to power after being summoned to the Foreign Ministry, where the coup leaders told him how they planned to strengthen democracy in the country.

"It was a sceptical audience they were talking to," said the State Department official, who asked not to be named.

In a bid to reassure the international community, the council pledged on Wednesday to respect all treaties and accords binding Mauritania, but there was no word from the new rulers on their foreign and domestic policy objectives.

Taya, who landed in Niger shortly after the coup, had angered many Arabs in his homeland by establishing diplomatic ties with Israel -- the Islamic Republic is one of only three Arab league members to have done so.

He also turned his country into one of the most repressive nations in the region towards Islamist movements, especially after narrowly surviving a coup bid in 2003. His government says two more attempts to topple him were foiled in 2004.

STREET JOY

Among those who will be looking for clues from the new rulers are Western oil companies which have invested heavily in Mauritania and hope to start pumping oil from its offshore fields next year.

International condemnation for the coup that ousted Taya -- regarded as a Western ally after he shifted support from Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein to Israel and the United States -- was in stark contrast with the scenes of jubilation that greeted news of the putsch on Wednesday.

"Welcome to Mauritania, the dictator is gone," said Ousmane Ba, 41, an insurance salesman, greeting a passenger crossing into Mauritania from Senegal by boat with a grin.

In the sand-blanketed capital Nouakchott, thousands of people took to the streets to voice their support for the new leader on Thursday. Some carried large photos of Vall, and shouted and honked car horns in celebration.

People headed to work as usual, traffic flowed freely and small groups of soldiers in four-wheel drive cars with mounted machineguns guarded key buildings, though in smaller numbers than on Wednesday.

Vall had long been seen as a close ally of the president, having participated in the 1984 coup that brought Taya to power and served as his security chief for nearly 20 years.

Among the putschists was also the head of Taya's guard, showing that unlike previous attempts to oust him, Wednesday's coup came from within the president's own inner circle.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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