August 9, 2005

U.S. decides to deal with Mauritania’s junta

By Nick Tattersall

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - The United States on Tuesday dropped
a demand that Mauritania's ousted president should be restored,
saying it was pressing the military junta in the West African
state to carry out a constitutional transition of power.

Diplomats said foreign nations would support the junta,
which staged a bloodless coup last week, if it showed it could
live up to a pledge to organize democratic elections.

The seizure of power by the 17-member military council in
the Islamic republic ended two decades of authoritarian rule by
President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya. The council promised
presidential elections within two years.

"The guys running the country right now are the guys we're
dealing with because they're the ones making the decisions and
we are trying to get them to make the right decision," State
Department spokesman Adam Ereli said in Washington.

"That decision is to have in Mauritania a government that
is in power on the basis of constitutional process," said

Mauritania, which straddles black and Arab Africa and hopes
to start pumping oil next year, has had a series of uprisings
and attempted military coups in recent years.

The United States, as part of President Bush's war against
terrorism, has been sending officers to train soldiers in
Mauritania and other countries in the region to combat
militants thought to be operating in the Sahara.

Washington, the European Union and the African Union (AU)
among others had condemned the putsch, with U.S. officials
initially calling for Taya to be restored to power.


But Mauritania's opposition and even Taya's own political
party swiftly backed the junta's plans, and jubilant residents
took to the streets of the capital Nouakchott in celebration.

"The international community had to condemn the coup out of
principle. A coup is a coup. But the team that took over has a
lot of support here," said one Western diplomat in Nouakchott,
declining to be named.

Taya, who had been in Niger since the coup, unexpectedly
traveled to Gambia on Tuesday. On Monday, Taya said he would
return to Mauritania soon, urging soldiers to resist the new

Nigerian and South African envoys, sent by the 53-nation
AU, arrived in Nouakchott on Tuesday to meet the military
council's head, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, as well as the
prime minister, political party leaders and members of civil

"The principle of the AU is not to agree with coups ... But
we believe we should not have one policy to fit every
situation," South Africa's ambassador to Mauritania, Rantobeng
William Mokou, told Reuters.

Libya's Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam, who
also held talks with the junta, said the will of Mauritania's
people had to be taken into account.

"After hearing the words of the president of the military
council ... we have the impression that the Mauritanian people
have started to approve (the change) and we approve what the
Mauritanian people approve," he said.

On Tuesday evening, civil servants and technocrats were
being summoned by the freshly named civilian prime minister,
Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, with the aim of forming a new
government which is likely to be announced on Wednesday.

Many Mauritanians dismiss the sudden interest outsiders
have taken in the former French colony, saying they were silent
while Taya had opponents tortured or expelled during his
21-year rule.

Taya managed to isolate Mauritania from sub-Saharan Africa
by expelling thousands of black Africans and alienate it from
the Arab world by establishing diplomatic links with Israel.

The military council has bolstered its support by freeing
some political prisoners, holding meetings with parties from
all sides and promising a constitutional referendum.

(Additional reporting by Mohamed Fadel in Nouakchott,
Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Dakar, Abdoulaye Massalatchi in
Niamey and Pap Saine in Banjul)