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Coup ousts West-leaning leader of Mauritania

A junta toppled Mauritania's autocratic president in an apparently bloodless coup , naming the longtime police chief of this oil-rich nation as the country's new leader.
Mauritanian President Maaouiya Ould Taya
Mauritanian President Maaouiya Ould Taya (second from the right in sunglasses) is met by Niger President Mamadou Tandja (in white robe), upon his arrival Wednesday, after a coup in his country.AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

A military junta toppled Mauritania's autocratic president in an apparently bloodless coup Wednesday, naming the longtime chief of this oil-rich desert nation's national police force as the country's new leader.

The military's overthrow of President Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya prompted celebrations in the Islamic nation that had looked increasingly to the West amid alleged threats from al-Qaida-linked militants.

The junta promised to yield to democratic rule within two years, but African leaders and the United States were quick to condemn the coup, declaring the days of authoritarianism and military rule must end across the continent.

A junta statement published by the state news agency said Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall was president of the military council that seized power.

New president close friend of former ruler
Vall, 55, has served as the national police chief since 1987. Known for being calm and tightlipped, he was considered a close confidant of Taya for more than two decades.

The junta statement identified 16 other army officers who were members of the military council, which announced earlier it would rule for up to two years. Except for one captain, all members of the council are colonels, the highest rank in the country's armed forces.

Taya, who himself seized power in a 1984 coup and dealt ruthlessly with those who opposed him, was out of the country when presidential guardsmen cut broadcasts from the national radio and television stations at dawn and seized a building housing the army chief of staff headquarters. He had allied his overwhelmingly Muslim nation with the United States in the war on terrorism and with Israel.

Taya refused comment after arriving Wednesday in nearby Niger from Saudi Arabia, where he attended King Fahd's funeral.

The junta identified itself in a statement on the state-run news agency as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy.

"The armed forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered much over the last several years," the statement said.

The junta said it would exercise power for up to two years to allow time to put in place "open and transparent" democratic institutions.

Criticism from Nigeria
Regional powerhouse Nigeria condemned the coup.

"As far as we are concerned, the days of tolerating military governance in our sub-region or anywhere are long gone," said Femi Fani-Kayode, a spokesman for Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.

"We believe in democracy and we insist on democracy."

African Union chief Alpha Oumar Konare rejected "any unconstitutional change of government," as did U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Americans in Mauritania taking precautions
In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey called for "a peaceful return for order under the constitution and the established government of President Taya."

Casey said the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott had advised American citizens to stay home and take precautions to ensure their safety.

Islamist leaders in Mauritania have led the opposition to Taya, criticizing him for building close ties with Israel. Mauritania opened full diplomatic relations with Israel six years ago.

Israel's embassy in Mauritania was operating normally, although security had been tightened as is standard at such times, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Israel.

At one point, a short burst of automatic gunfire was heard near the presidential palace, where three anti-aircraft truck batteries were set up at midmorning. No casualties were reported.

Celebration following the coup
After the coup was announced, hundreds of people celebrated in the city center, saluting soldiers guarding the presidential palace, clapping and singing slogans in Arabic against Taya. Most people stayed home, but dozens of civilian cars moved through the streets, horns blaring.

"It's the end of a long period of oppression and injustice," said Fidi Kane, a civil servant. "We are very delighted with this change of regime."

State television and radio were back on air by the afternoon, with journalists reading the junta's statement repeatedly, interspersed with Quranic readings — normal in the Islamic nation.

Taya had survived several coup attempts, including one in 2003 that led to several days of street fighting in the capital.

After that, he jailed scores of members of Muslim fundamentalist groups and the army accused of plotting to overthrow him. His government also has accused opponents of training with al-Qaida linked insurgents in Algeria.

A June 4 border raid on a remote Mauritanian army post by al-Qaida-linked insurgents sparked a gunbattle that killed 15 Mauritanian troops and nine attackers. Algeria's Salafist Group for Call and Combat claimed responsibility for the attack, saying in a message on a Web site that the assault was "in revenge for our brothers who were arrested in the last round of detentions in Mauritania."

The U.S. military has sent special operations troops to train Mauritania's army, most recently in June as part of efforts to deny terrorists sanctuary in the under-policed Sahara desert region.

This sparsely populated nation on the northwestern edge of the Sahara had been strictly controlled by Taya, who tried to legitimize his rule in the 1990s through elections the opposition says were fraudulent.

Offshore oil reserves were recently discovered, and the country is expected to begin pumping crude early next year.

Oil industry analysts said the coup was unlikely to significantly affect global oil prices.