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Mauritania junta to curb Islamists

DAKAR (Reuters) - Mauritania’s new military rulers will take a harder line on both al Qaeda militants and more moderate Islamist politicians than their civilian predecessors who were ousted in a coup this week.

The army had been unhappy with the softer stance taken by the African nation’s first freely elected president, who was deposed on Wednesday.

By hunting down militants in a country hit by several Islamist attacks in the past year, the junta could also try to ease global criticism of the takeover, particularly from the United States. It has already cut military aid in protest.

“The military’s most recent coup ... may strengthen the government’s response to Mauritania’s fledgling Islamist terrorist organisations,” said Geoff Porter, an analyst at the Eurasia Group.

Despite promises of elections and respect for democracy, analysts say coup leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is also likely to marginalize Islamist moderates who won positions in the weak government of the overthrown president.

Having been barred for years, Islamists were allowed to set up a political party last year after Mauritania, which sits in both black and Arab Africa, elected its first democratic leader in President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

But some criticized the lifting of the Islamist ban, especially when al Qaeda militants later killed several French tourists last December and clashed with the Mauritanian security services in early 2008.

The attacks, which led to the cancellation of the famous Dakar motor rally, strengthened fears that al Qaeda’s north African wing could spread to the already fragile states of West Africa.

The Islamist attacks were certainly not the main reason for Wednesday’s coup. A social crisis caused by rising food prices and followed a power struggle between the president and both the army and his legislators were more immediate triggers.

But the raids soured relations between the army and Abdallahi.

“The military embraced an ‘eradicationist’ approach similar to that prevalent among the Algerian military, whereas Abdallahi preferred a more institutional approach -- arresting terrorists, trying them in court and releasing them if charges would not stick,” Porter said.


Abdallahi’s election last year was widely welcomed by the international community as a step towards democracy and, especially for the United States, as bringing a new possible partner to fight terrorism.

Washington is also happy to protect Mauritania’s longstanding ties with Israel. It is one of few Arab states to have them.

A democratic Mauritania was quickly incorporated into the Pentagon’s $500 million Sahara counter terrorism operations that also run in Mali, Niger and Chad.

Washington, however, immediately condemned this week’s coup and on Thursday suspended aid to Mauritania, including over $15 million in military aid and anti-terrorism funds.

Mauritania’s new leaders will not be surprised by this cut in aid, said another analyst. But they will, in private, stress their commitment to fighting terror and use fears of regional insecurity to curry some favor.

“They will say that they represent stability and there should not be any fears about insecurity,” said Alain Antil, the head of the Sub-Saharan Africa program at the French Institute for International Relations.

President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, Mauritania’s long-time ruler who was ousted by a coup in 2005 that led to Abdallahi’s election, was often accused of using the threat of terrorism to crack down on his own moderate Islamist opposition.

The lifting of their ban last year boosted Abdallahi’s democratic credentials.

Then, when faced by mounting political and social crises this year, the embattled president gave Islamists several jobs in the new government in an attempt to broaden his support base.

“After the (militant) attacks, people were worried that this wasn’t the right idea,” said Atil, adding that the move was particularly unpopular amongst the military now in charge.

“I don’t know how far they will go,” Antil said, when asked what measures the junta might take against Islamist politicians.

“I’m not sure if they will go as far as banning them (but) they (the Islamists) certainly won’t have a role to play.”

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Editing by Alistair Thomson and Matthew Tostevin