August 4, 2005

Mauritania calm after army says it has taken power

By Ibrahima Sylla

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritania's capital was calm on
Thursday as the country waited for announcements from a group
of officers who said they had seized power to end more than two
decades of "totalitarian" rule by the president.

Triumphant crowds cheered a statement broadcast on state
media on Wednesday that President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya
had been overthrown in an apparently bloodless coup, the latest
in a series of attempts to oust him in recent years.

Officers said in the statement signed by the "Military
Council for Justice and Democracy" that they would rule for up
to two years in the West African country, which aims to start
pumping offshore oil next year.

Opposition leaders welcomed the prospect of a change of
government, but said the army must not outstay its welcome.

"In this crisis situation, a regime change was inevitable.
But we would have wished that this be done in a controlled
democratic way with all the parties involved," said Messaoud
Ould Boulkheir, president of the Popular Progressive Alliance.

Many people headed to work as usual in the capital early on
Thursday. Traffic flowed freely and small groups of soldiers
guarded key buildings, though in smaller numbers than on
Wednesday, witnesses said.

State radio said the 17-member military council would be
headed by Colonel Ely Ould Mohammad Vall, naming a list of
members comprised of officers in the country's various security

The African Union, South Africa and United Nations
Secretary-General Kofi Annan all condemned the seizure of power
by force in Mauritania, a country of 2.9 million people.

The United States demanded that Taya be restored to power.

"We join the African Union in condemning the violence in
Mauritania. And we call for a peaceful return for order under
the constitution and the established government of President
Taya," State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.


A Western oil executive, who declined to be named, said the
apparent support of senior figures in the security
establishment would bolster the coup leaders' position,
although they may still come under international pressure.

"If your chief of police and your head of national security
have gone you have got to wonder how many friends you have got
left, it's now a diplomatic game, the question is whether
anyone is going to come to Taya's side," he said, adding that
the country's close-knit society may discourage violence.

"In Mauritania everybody is everybody else's brother or
cousin, so they are not going to start fighting in the
streets," he said.

The mostly desert country is due to start producing 75,000
barrels of crude per day from its offshore Chinguetti field
early in 2006, and hopes to find more reserves onshore.

Taya, who first seized power in a 1984 putsch, has angered
many Arabs in the country by shifting support from former Iraqi
president Saddam Hussein to Israel and Washington in the 1990s.

Taya, who was in Saudi Arabia for King Fahd's funeral on
Tuesday, landed in Niger's capital hours after news of troop
movements in Nouakchott. His PRDS party denounced the coup.

Mauritania, an Islamic Republic, is one of only three Arab
League member states that have diplomatic ties with Israel. It
is considered one of the most repressive countries in the
region toward Islamist movements.

Troops nearly toppled Taya in 2003 during two days of
fighting in Nouakchott, before loyalists prevailed. The
government says it foiled two coup bids in 2004.