Mauritania: Army officers declare coup

A group of army officers in Mauritania announced the overthrow of President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Taya on Wednesday.

The group identified itself as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy and announced the coup through the state-run news agency.

Earlier on Wednesday, presidential guard troops in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, took control of the national radio and television stations and seized a building housing the army chief of staff’s headquarters while the president was out of the country, witnesses said.

Cabinet ministers and army officials either could not be reached or refused to comment.

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.

Hours earlier, units from the presidential guard seized a building housing the army chief of staff headquarters, as well as state radio and TV, cutting broadcasts throughout the country, an Associated Press reporter on the scene said.

Heavily armed army troops also deployed extra troops around ministerial offices and the presidential palace. They patrolled the streets in force, blocking key roads and several entrances to the city.

Mohamed Ali, a father of eight who lives near the presidency, was among those fleeing the city centre.

“I’m afraid for my family,” he said.
“I’ll come back with things are back to normal.”

Taya had travelled to Saudi Arabia for the funeral of King Fahd, who died on Monday. Taya was in Riyadh on Wednesday, a senior Saudi government official said on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorised to comment officially on the matter.

Taya has survived several coup attempts during his 20-year reign. Only one attempt in 2003 made it past the planning stage, marked by several days of street fighting in the capital.

Since then, Taya has cracked down ruthlessly against opponents, including members of Islamist groups and the army, jailing scores of people accused of plotting to overthrow him. His government has also accused opponents of training with al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in Algeria.

Islamist leaders in Mauritania have staunchly opposed Taya, criticising him for building close ties with Israel. Mauritania, an Arab-dominated West African nation straddling black and Arab Africa, opened full diplomatic relations with Israel in the 1990s despite widespread objections at home.

Mauritania, a sparsely populated nation of three million on the north-west edge of Africa, is tightly controlled by Taya who took power in a 1984 military coup and tried to legitimise his rule in the 1990s through elections the opposition says were fraudulent.

The first exploitation of the impoverished nation’s vast offshore reserves of petroleum is expected during the first quarter of next year.—Sapa-AP