Mauritania expels Israeli diplomats, shuts embassy

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritania’s military junta expelled Israeli diplomats and shut the embassy on Friday after freezing ties with the Jewish state over its invasion of Gaza.

An Israeli soldier stands atop a tank near Kibbutz Kissufim, just outside the central Gaza Strip February 23, 2009. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Mauritania was one of only three Arab countries that had full diplomatic relations with Israel and the closure of the embassy in Nouakchott leaves just Egypt and Jordan.

Mauritania’s communications minister said the move was a result of a decision taken at a meeting of Arab leaders in Doha in mid-January following Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

“We informed them of the decision to suspend relations at the time of the summit in Doha, and it is now being executed,” El Kory Ould Abdel Mola told Reuters. “The embassy is closed.”

Another Mauritanian official said Israeli diplomats had been given 48 hours to leave the northwest African country. Staff were seen leaving the building.

“Israel has decided to close its embassy in Nouakchott,” the embassy said in a statement. “The ambassador is on vacation.”

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official who declined to be identified said he could not confirm the expulsion and suggested the timing of the decision could be linked to a planned visit to Nouakchott by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

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“Maybe they are just showing they’re tough,” the official said.

Gaddafi heads the African Union and is trying to mediate in the political crisis Mauritania has endured since the first democratically elected president was overthrown last August and General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz took over.

“The decision was dictated by the Libyan guide (Gaddafi),” said Ahmed Abdallah, a senior member of the anti-junta alliance the National Front for the Defense of Democracy.

“He said he would not come to Nouakchott if they did not cut relations with Israel.”

Ousted President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi returned to the capital on Friday for the first time since the coup and was due to fly to Libya to meet Gaddafi.

An official close to junta leader Abdel Aziz said that after the Doha summit, the foreign ministry had sent a letter to the Israeli ambassador advising him to leave.

Abdel Aziz announced the decision to freeze relations at a summit of Arab nations in Doha, Qatar, in January. Qatar said at the time that it would freeze its own relations with Israel, which are at a lower level than full diplomatic ties.

Most other Arab countries also froze Israel’s trade missions in their capitals after Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

Nouakchott, in common with other cities across the Arab world, saw protests against the Gaza attacks earlier this year.

Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem; writing by Daniel Magnowski; editing by Alistair Thomson and Matthew Tostevin