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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

Mauritania junta frees jailed Islamists, names PM

August 7, 2005

By Nick Tattersall

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) – Mauritania’s new army rulers ordered
the release on Sunday of around 20 Islamist activists who had
been jailed by ousted President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya for
their alleged links with a group allied to al Qaeda.

In a move designed to reassure political parties, the junta
also appointed a civilian prime minister, Sidi Mohamed Ould
Boubacar, to head a caretaker government.

A former premier under Taya, Ould Boubacar became
Mauritania’s ambassador to France after falling out of grace
and is seen as a consensus name who may also help soothe
international concerns about the military takeover.

Taya, who had ruled with an authoritarian style since 1984,
was overthrown in a bloodless coup by a group of officers on
Wednesday while out of the country.

The detainees freed on Sunday were part of a group of some
60 people arrested by security forces since April in a
clampdown on Islamist activists and politicians which critics
say was an excuse to stifle dissent.

“This is a new era, a page has been turned,” said Moctar
Ould Mohamed Moussa, one of the released prisoners, as he
walked out of the main civilian prison in the capital
Nouakchott to be met by cheering relatives.

Hundreds of jubilant people honked their car horns outside
the two-storey concrete building.

The United States, France and the United Nations have all
condemned the coup. The African Union has suspended Mauritania.

But in Nouakchott and elsewhere in the country, thousands
of people have taken to the streets in celebration.

On Sunday, even Taya’s own party said it fully backed the
program outlined by the military council — a constitutional
referendum within a year followed by parliamentary elections.

DIPLOMATIC SHIFT

Initially an ally of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein,
Taya had angered many Arabs in his country by moving it closer
to Israel — Mauritania is one of only three Arab League
members to have diplomatic ties with the Jewish state — and
Washington.

He also turned Mauritania, which straddles black and Arab
Africa, into one of the most repressive countries toward
Islamist movements, especially after narrowly surviving a coup
attempt in June 2003.

The detained activists had been accused by Taya’s
government of colluding with the Algerian-based Salafist Group
for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a movement allied to al Qaeda.

But many Mauritanian Arabs say Taya overstated the Islamist
threat to justify a crackdown on opponents and curry favor with
the United States — whose military trained his army to fight
radical militants thought to be active in the Sahara desert.
“The Islamists are the majority in Mauritania. They do not
preach violence. The former president rounded them as
extremists so as to win support from the West,” said Yacoub
Ould Moine, a university maths professor who was standing
outside the prison.

A source close to the military junta told Reuters half a
dozen prisoners would stay in jail after they admitted ties to
the GSPC. The cases of other detainees were being reviewed.

Opposition leaders said the new prime minister had once
been one of Taya’s men, but should be given the benefit of the
doubt.

“He is someone from the old regime but he is someone who
wants change,” Mohamed Ould Maouloud, leader of a moderate
opposition party, told Reuters.

“We will judge him by his work,” he said.

(additional reporting by Ibrahima Sylla)