Mauritanian junta names new leader

African leaders have condemned the coup in the West African state of Mauritania, saying the days of authoritarianism and military rule must end across the continent. A military junta toppled Mauritania’s autocratic president while he was abroad, replacing him with the longtime chief of this oil-rich desert nation’s police force.

The junta promised to yield to democratic rule within two years, but South Africa, the United States and the European Union condemned the coup.

“We join the international community, and the African Union (AU) in particular, for the return to the rule of law and constitutionality in Mauritania,” said Ronnie Mamoepa, spokesperson for the SA Department of Foreign Affairs.

“The South African government reiterates the AU position that any unconstitutional transfer of power will not be countenanced by leaders of the African continent.”

President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya’s bloodless overthrow on Wednesday prompted celebrations in the Islamic nation that had looked increasingly to the West amid alleged threats from al-Qaeda linked militants.

Taya arrived on Wednesday in nearby Niger from Saudi Arabia, where he attended King Fahd’s funeral.

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

Vall (55) has served as national police chief since 1987.
Known for his calm and reserve, he was considered a close confidant of Taya for more than two decades.

The junta statement identified 16 other army officers as members. Except for one captain, all are all colonels, the highest rank in the country’s armed forces.

Taya himself seized power in a 1984 coup and dealt ruthlessly with those who opposed him. Taya had allied his overwhelmingly Muslim nation with the United States in the war on terror and with Israel.

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.

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 spokesperson 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 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

In Washington, State Department spokesperson Tom Casey called for “a peaceful return for order under the Constitution and the established government of President Taya”.

Britain, in its capacity as current president of the European Union, issued a statement on Thursday condemning “any attempt to seize power by force” and called for “full respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law” in Mauritania.

Islamist leaders in Mauritania have led the opposition to Taya, criticising 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 spokesperson Mark Regev said in Israel.

After the coup was announced, hundreds of people celebrated in the city centre, 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 Qu’ranic 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-Qaeda linked insurgents in Algeria.

A June 4 border raid on a remote Mauritanian army post by al-Qaeda-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 website that the assault was “in revenge for our brothers who were arrested in the last round of detentions in Mauritania”.

The US 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 legitimise 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. - Sapa-AP

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