Elected Leaders Ousted in Mauritania

Mauritania's President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi is seen during a visit to Japan, in this Friday May 30, 2008 file photo. Mauritania's presidential spokesman said Wednesday Aug. 6, 2008, that renegade army officers have staged a coup, detaining the desert nation's president after he fired the country's top four military officials. President Abdallahi is being held by renegade soldiers at the presidential palace in Nouakchott, his spokesman Abdoulaye Mamadouba said.
Mauritania's President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi is seen during a visit to Japan, in this Friday May 30, 2008 file photo. Mauritania's presidential spokesman said Wednesday Aug. 6, 2008, that renegade army officers have staged a coup, detaining the desert nation's president after he fired the country's top four military officials. President Abdallahi is being held by renegade soldiers at the presidential palace in Nouakchott, his spokesman Abdoulaye Mamadouba said. (Koji Sasahara - AP)

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By Ahmed Mohamed and Todd Pitman
Associated Press
Thursday, August 7, 2008

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania, Aug. 7 -- Army commanders ousted Mauritania's first freely elected president in two decades Wednesday after a bitter political fight over his overtures to Islamist radicals and ties to allies of a reviled former dictator.

In a bloodless coup, troops detained President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, seized control of state radio and television and announced the formation of a new "state council" led by the commander of the presidential guard, Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

The junta issued no further statements at the time, but early Thursday morning the coup leaders said that they plan to hold free and open elections; they did not set a date.

In a statement read on national television, the junta said the west African nation would be governed during the interim by the council, describing it as an 11-member group of military commanders.

The coup -- which drew widespread international condemnation -- reflected the internal struggle over how to manage this desperately poor desert nation that straddles the Arab and African worlds and is Africa's newest, if small-scale, oil producer.

Troubles began early Wednesday, when Abdallahi fired Aziz and three other generals, reportedly for supporting lawmakers who had accused him of corruption and disagreed with his outreach to Islamist radicals.

As troops gained control of broadcast outlets, Abdallahi was detained by presidential guards and held at the palace compound in the sandy coastal capital, Nouakchott, of this West African country. His spokesman, Abdoulaye Mamadou Ba, said soldiers also detained Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghef.

"He fired the generals, and that is his constitutional right. This is a coup d'etat against democracy," said Abdallahi's spokesman, Abdoulaye Mamadou Ba.

Much like the nation's last coup in 2005, the change of power was swiftly condemned by the United States, the European Union and the African Union.

The 2005 coup was wildly popular in the streets and silently applauded abroad because it ended the 21-year rule of an unpopular dictator, paving the way for the 2007 elections that restored civilian rule.

The level of popular support is less clear this time, and coup leaders risk isolation from the international community.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the Mauritanian military's overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mauritania," said State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos. "We call on the military to release the president and the prime minister and to restore the legitimate, constitutional, democratically elected government immediately."

E.U. Development Commissioner Louis Michel warned that Mauritania's president and prime minister should be returned to their posts quickly and that $241 million in E.U. aid for Mauritania could be at risk if they are not.

The capital remained calm. Police supporting the coup kept a close watch to maintain order, even using tear gas to disperse several hundred supporters of the coup leader who were blocking streets.

Mauritania, with a population of 3.4 million, has been racked by more than 10 coups or attempted coups since independence from France in 1960. Relatively small oil reserves were discovered in 2006. The country produces a minuscule 12,000 barrels a day, said energy analyst Thomas Pearmain at Global Insight in London.


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