NOUAKCHOTT Opposition leaders in coup-prone Mauritania on Thursday called on the army to stay out of politics and demanded more information on the health of the country's absentee president.
Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, a key ally of the West in the fight against al Qaeda in Africa, was flown to France on October 14, for treatment of a gunshot wound the government said he received when a military patrol accidentally fired on his convoy.
He was released from hospital more than a week ago but has yet to return to Mauritania or appear publicly, raising questions over the state of his health and who is running the country in his absence.
Several thousand opposition supporters gathered in the capital Nouakchott on Thursday to demand more transparency from the authorities concerning the president's condition as well as a report clarifying the circumstances of his shooting.
"The soldiers held the power for more than 40 years and today it's not just a coincidence if everyone thinks it's the army chief of staff who has the power," said Khadiata Malik Diallo, vice president of the opposition UFP party.
"We don't want soldiers to be able to interfere in politics any longer, either openly or covertly," he said.
Rumors have abounded in the arid West African nation since the president's shooting, with many questioning the government's official version of events.
Last weekend, when Abdel Aziz failed to appear on television for his traditional address marking the Muslim feast of Tabaski, fears that he had died and that the army was in the process of taking over spread through the capital.
The president of the National Assembly, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, attempted on Wednesday to calm the country's citizens by saying he had been in contact with Abdel Aziz by telephone.
"I spoke to the president, who told me he was doing well and that his health was improving. Our conversation allowed me to note that he had all his intellectual capacities," he said on state radio.
However, the government's assurances have done little to allay the fears of many Mauritanians that the country is now experiencing a power vacuum.
"Who's ruling the country while the president is away? Is it the military, businessmen or the prime minister? None of them is entitled to do so according to our constitution," said one man at Thursday's opposition meeting.
"And what will happen if al Qaeda operates another incursion into Mauritania?" asked the man, who gave his name only as Hamoud.
(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Stephen Powell)