Mauritania’s first free-elected leader has been overthrown by troops, who say they have formed a state council in order to run the country. After trying to dismiss the military’s top commanders, president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi (photo, from saharamedia.net) was held.
In Nouakchott, the capital, troops are out on the streets, where tear gas was fired at about 50 protesters.
Last year, taking over from a military junta, president Abdallahi came to power in free and fair polls.
But on Wednesday, the country’s president, as well as his prime minister, Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef, have been rounded up by troops, apparently without needing to use force.
Earlier on Wednesday, the president tried to dismiss four senior army officers, including the head of the presidential guard, Gen Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who responded by launching the coup.
For the past two weeks, the country has in the grip of a political crisis, since a vote of no confidence in the cabinet. 48 MPs walked out of the ruling party on Wednesday.
According to James Copnall, BBC’s correspondent, reports suggest that the mass resignation has been orchestrated by some of the generals.
Nouakchott airport has been closed, security sources told the AFP news agency on Wednesday.
Based in Nouakchott, journalist Hamdi Ould Mohamed el-Hacen told the BBC that people had gathered on street corners to discuss the coup, and particularly the fate of the president and prime minister. (photo from bbc.co.uk)
On behalf of the coup leaders, culture minister Abdellahi Salem Ould El-Mouallah read a statement on TV, announcing the presidential decree sacking the top army officers had been “annulled legally and practically”.
Amid reports of unusual troops movements in Nouakchott, state radio and television were taken off the air. Those were the first indications of a military coup.
‘Textbook coup d’etat’
Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi, the president’s daughter, said soldiers seized her father at his house at 0920 local time (0920 GMT). In a phone call to a French radio station, she raised the alarm.
“They came here to find him”, she told Radio France International. “They arrested him here and took him to the battalion base. It’s a textbook coup d’etat.”
The coup has been condemned by the African Union (AU), who demanded a return to constitutional government, adding that it was sending an envoy to the Mauritanian capital immediately.
The military takeover (photo, from aljazeera.net) has also been criticised by the governments of South Africa and Nigeria, both major players in the AU.
The US state department also decried the coup, along with the European Commission, which warned that it would suspend aid to Mauritania.
Since its independence from France in 1960, Mauritania has a long history of coups, with the military involved in nearly every government.
Held in 2007, the presidential elections ended a two-year period of military rule, that was the product of a military coup in 2005.
Deemed to have been free and fair, the elections appeared to herald a new era of democracy.
Yet, earlier this year, amid protests over soaring food prices, the president dismissed the government. It has been replaced by a cabinet dogged by instability, and which was lacking the support of a moderate Islamist party and a major opposition group that were in the former government.
Although it is the world’s newest oil producer, Mauritania is one of its poorest nations.
The former French colony of more than three million people has been looking to oil revenues to boost its economy.