Mauritanians vote in first post-coup poll

Mauritanians voted on Saturday in an election meant to signal to donors and investors the country is ready to rejoin the international community after a much-criticised military coup last August, Reuters reported.

Queues formed outside voting booths in the capital Nouakchott, with voters keen to participate in elections that were scheduled for June 6, but delayed in order to end an opposition boycott that would have damaged their credibility.

Junta leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is favourite to win the vote in the Sahara desert Islamic state, analysts say, but there are alternatives in Ely Ould Mohamed Vall as well as veteran opposition figure Ahmed Ould Daddah.

"This election represents the most important challenge ... where our country choses to either come out of a crisis which is a very grave crisis, and extremely dangerous for our country, or it chooses to remain in this crisis," said Vall.

"I think our country will choose to come out ... and in coming out of the crisis, avoiding the legalisation of a coup d'etat."

Vall mounted a coup in 2005, a popular move which ousted a long-standing military ruler and laid the foundations for the country's first free elections in 2007.

Abdel Aziz's promises of food and fuel price cuts are likely to endear him to Mauritanians, 40 percent of whom live under the poverty line.

"The most likely scenario is for Aziz to become leader, but this time through the ballot box," said Global Insight analyst Kissy Agyeman-Togobo.

International donors such as the European Union and United States halted aid programmes in protest at the coup, but a transparent vote would be a step towards restarting cooperation.

Neither the EU nor United Nations have sent observers, but there are more than 200 overseeing the election from organisations including the African Union -- which lifted sanctions this month -- and the Arab League.

Mohamed Hussein, a member of a civil society group, said Mauritanians appeared to be happy to vote.

"Everything is going well so far. We have visited a dozen polling stations and all the material is in place," he said.

Police shot and injured one man and arrested two others in an armed clash overnight in the same area of Nouakchott in which gunmen killed an American aid worker last month, a police source said. However, Saturday began peacefully.

"Police tried to enter a house and there was an exchange of fire," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A free vote would also set a positive example to the rest of the region, where military coups and constitutional crises have become a feature of politics in the past year.

"This crisis has lasted almost a year, and we're impatient to vote now. It's the only way of getting out of this crisis and returning to normality," said Oumar Dicko, who runs an Internet cafe in the sandy capital.

Abdel Aziz made combating terrorism a cornerstone of his justification for seizing power, accusing President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi of slackening off on al Qaeda.

Mauritania is an ally of the West in the fight against the group, though the international marginalisation that began after the August coup intensified when it shut the Israeli embassy in March in protest at the Jewish state's invasion of Gaza.

Until then, Mauritania had been one of only three Arab countries to have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

"We are likely to see Aziz attempting to restore ties with traditional donors," Agyeman-Togobo said.

"But this will require something of a balancing act for the man who has adopted a more radicalised stance towards Israel, which could see relations with U.S. ally, Egypt, and other Western powers compromised."

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