Mauritania Leader Aims to Avoid Oil Curse

The Associated Press
Sunday, April 23, 2006; 8:53 PM

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- The former police colonel who seized power in Africa's newest crude exporter says he believes Mauritania can avoid the corruption and violence that have accompanied oil wealth elsewhere on the continent.

Mauritania, which borders Mali, Senegal and Algeria, began pumping oil in February. Many are watching the impoverished northwest African nation _ 40 percent of its 3 million citizens live below the poverty line _ to see if it will be able to cope with the sudden wealth.

"Anything can be a curse. But oil can also be a blessing," Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall said in a wide-ranging interview Saturday on topics from illegal African migration to Europe to Mauritanians detained at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay. "For us it is going to be a blessing."

"We can avoid corruption because we have the true desire to do so," he said over tea in the presidential palace in the capital, Nouakchott. "This isn't doublespeak for us."

The 53-year-old Vall took power in a bloodless coup in August but has refused the title of president, saying it should only be used for elected leaders of a country.

He said Mauritania plans to hold back some oil revenue from the yearly budget to build wealth for future generations.

He also promised to return Mauritania to democracy with elections next year. He reaffirmed in the interview that he will not run in March presidential elections, saying "nothing at all" could push him to enter the race.

His power grab, however, placed him on the opposite side of a trend toward multiparty elections across Africa.

Mauritanians, while applauding some newfound freedoms in their country, are waiting to see whether Vall delivers on his promises. Many coup leaders in other nations have vowed to turn over power, only to drag out their interim roles for years _ or renege entirely on their promises.

Vall also said Saturday that the United States should only try three Mauritanian citizens listed as Guantanamo Bay detainees if the men have broken American laws.

He said he did not know the specific accusations against Mohammad Lameen Mohammad, Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who were among more than 500 names on a Guantanamo detainee list released to the AP on Wednesday.

Vall said he was not asking for the trio's return to Mauritania for trial.

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