August 4, 2005

Pressure mounts on Mauritania army after coup

By Ibrahima Sylla

NOUAKCHOTT (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 military council, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed
Vall on Thursday, but declined to make any declaration.

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 toward Islamist movements, especially
after narrowly surviving a coup bid in 2003. His government
says two more attempts to topple him were foiled in 2004.

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.

Analysts said the high-level backing for the coup in the
security forces reflected widespread discontent with Taya,
although it was unclear how far its leaders were motivated by
ending repression rather than by personal gain.

"It definitely seems to me that there's a degree of
unanimity within the security forces, evidenced by the fact
that there was nobody killed yesterday," said Mike McGovern,
West Africa project director for the Crisis Group think-tank.
"The level of popular discontent in Mauritania is quite high."

(Additional reporting by Nicholas Tattersall)