Mauritania junta battles tide of diplomatic outrage

NOUAKCHOTT Wed Aug 6, 2008 7:32pm EDT

1 of 2. Mauritania's President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi gives a speech in the southern border town of Rosso in this May 6, 2008 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Vincent Fertey/Files

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NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - The leaders of a coup in Mauritania may have won the support of many local politicians but they face a tide of international outrage for ousting the desert nation's first democratically elected president.

President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was overthrown and arrested along with his prime minister on Wednesday by the head of his presidential guard, Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz.

Abdelaziz, whom Abdallahi tried to sack along with other top military commanders after weeks of simmering political tensions, set up a "State Council" in Africa's newest oil producer.

In its first decree, the council reversed their sackings.

The coup received the backing of many parliamentarians who hitherto supported Abdallahi but walked out of his PNDD-ADIL party on Monday after weeks of political turmoil.

PNDD-ADIL dissident legislators, some of whom have complained Abdallahi ruled without consulting them, called the coup a step towards stability.

"This is a moment of correction and realignment for us to be able to go forwards towards democracy," said one of them, Moustapha Ould Abeiderrahmane.

The PNDD-ADIL dissidents plan to march on Thursday in a show of support for the new junta.

Abdallahi won elections last year after a 2005 coup, also instigated by Abdelaziz, which ended years of dictatorship. But Abdallahi had been fighting off a series of crises in recent months.

One government was sacked in May while another resigned in July when faced with the prospect of a vote of no confidence.

When most of the parliamentarians from his party quit en masse this week, many suspected senior military officials of stoking the conflict. Abdallahi's reaction, sacking the country's top military commanders, triggered Wednesday's coup.

The international community had pinned its hopes on the young democracy and condemnation was swift in coming from bodies such as the United Nations and the African Union but also the United States and regional giant Nigeria.

Warnings of the impact of the coup on aid soon followed.

"Our policy is that this action could have a very serious impact on our aid and cooperation with Mauritania," said Russell Brooks, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of African Affairs.

Mauritania is Africa's newest oil producer, although output has failed to meet expectations so far, and it has promising gas concessions and is attracting large-scale investors looking to tap into its iron ore reserves.

Straddling black and Arab Africa, Mauritania's leadership has also taken on greater significance in the U.S.-led war on terror after several al Qaeda attacks over the last year.

"It's difficult to say which way it will go," said Kissy Agyeman, an analyst at Global Insight.

"I doubt it will be a smooth transition (from now) because people had embraced the idea of having a democratic government."

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)

(Writing by David Lewis; editing by Alistair Thomson)

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