Demo supports coup as Mauritania junta pledges elections

Wednesday's military coup in the north-western African nation of Mauritania divided opinions Thursday, with demonstrations staged both for and against ousted president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, dpa reported.

The bigger rally supported the coup, with thousands of people calling on the new ruling military junta to "save" the country's democratic institutions which they saw as having been threatened by Cheikh Abdallahi's policies.

The demonstrators included the leaders of several political parties.

A smaller rally opposing the coup brought together dozens of people including several legislators.

No incidents were reported.

The capital Nouakchott was calm, with a heavy presence from the security forces.

The junta promised "free and transparent" presidential elections in a communique which was read out on radio and television.

The elections will be organized together with the political parties and civic groups, the "high state council" consisting of five generals and six other high-ranking military officers.

The junta pledged to stage the elections as soon as possible, without giving a date, and to respect the international agreements signed by Mauritania.

Ousted president Cheikh Abdallahi and Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf were reportedly remaining in the custody of the military.

The coup was instigated partly by the presidential guard, whose head Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz is the new leader of the former French colony of 3 million residents.

The new authorities appointed new directors for national radio and television, which had been accused of not reporting on the activities of dissidents within the ruling party, the National Pact for Democracy and Development (PNDD).

Wednesday's bloodless coup followed the sacking of Ould Abdel Aziz and three other top military officers, whom Cheikh Abdallahi had suspected of encouraging opposition against him.

Cheikh Abdallahi had previously been accused of not taking action against rising food prices and especially against the growth of Islamist extremism which is blamed for the killings of four French tourists and several Mauritanian soldiers in December.

Criticism over the presence of ministers linked to former dictator Maaouya Ould Taya contributed to a government reshuffle, but 48 legislators from the PNDD nevertheless walked out of the party on Monday.

The president was also linked to corruption allegations involving a foundation run by his wife.

While many Mauritanians welcomed Cheikh Abdallahi's departure, others deplored the coup as dashing the budding democracy which had increased press freedom and been hailed as a model for Africa.

"They have staged a coup against the stability of Mauritania, democracy and hope of justice," said Mohammed Ould Maouloud, former presidential candidate for the opposition party UFP.

Cheikh Abdallahi's election in 2007 capped a string of democratic polls which ended with a handover of power from a military junta to civilians.

The junta had ousted 21-year dictator Ould Taya in 2005.

The instigators of the 2005 bloodless coup included Ould Abdel Aziz, who was described as now having deposed a president chosen by the military and who had subsequently refused to toe its line.

Internationally, the coup was ill-received, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for the immediate restoration of constitutional order.

The Arab League urged the parties to solve their political conflicts with democratic dialogue, while the United States and African Union condemned the coup.

The European Union said the coup could jeopardize up to 242 million dollars of aid pledged to Mauritania.

The junta must return the overthrown government to power for any future elections to count as valid, officials in Brussels said Thursday.

Cuts in aid would come at a bad time for Mauritania, a desert country with few natural resources which imports 80 per cent of its food, and which has been hard hit by the global food crisis.

Mauritania is among Africa's new oil producers, but extraction difficulties have contributed to production being limited to only around 15,000 barrels per day, down from initial forecasts of 75,000 barrels.

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