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African Union will suspend Mauritania: AU chair

DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - The African Union will suspend Mauritania until democracy is restored in the West African nation where soldiers overthrew the president this week, AU chair Tanzania said on Saturday.

Supporters carry a poster of coup-leader and former presidential guard chief Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott August 7, 2008. REUTERS/Vincent Fertey

The continental body’s move is the latest international condemnation of a coup that at home has received a mixture of support and muted criticism from various political camps but, by now, is largely being met with indifference by the population.

“African Union will suspend Mauritania until the country returns to a constitutional government,” Tanzanian Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Membe said on behalf of the AU.

Membe said Mauritania had signed several AU conventions banning illegal changes of government, including one last month.

Soldiers led by the presidential guard overthrew Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the country’s first democratically elected president since independence in 1974, on Wednesday after he tried to sack senior officers.

The country straddles black and Arab Africa and is an ally of the United States in the war against terrorism. Militant attacks in Mauritania over the past year have underscored fears al Qaeda’s north African wing was spreading its influence south.

The country’s new leaders, led by presidential guard chief Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, have promised elections.

But condemnation of the coup outside Mauritania has been widespread and Washington has frozen all non-humanitarian aid to the country, which is also one of the continent’s newest oil producers.

Ahmed Ben Hilli, the Arab League’s assistant secretary general for political affairs, said on Saturday he had met Abdel Aziz, whom he called “the president”, and he was assured of a return to democracy but given no date for polls.

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Abdel Aziz does not appear ready to bow to pressure for now.

“We will not release the deposed president at the time being for security reasons. We are now trying to make calm prevail and avoiding escalation,” he told London-based Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in remarks published on Saturday.

Abdel Aziz did not specify the security reasons or give any details on promised elections but asked for understanding.

“We ask our Arab brothers and our friends to understand the position and we will share our reasons with them. The problem that happened in Mauritania is an internal affair,” he said.

NO NEED FOR RECOGNITION

Abdallahi won elections last year after a 2005 coup also instigated by Abdel Aziz, which ended years of dictatorship, but he faced growing opposition from parliamentarians and the army, which has long played a key role in Mauritanian politics.

After some minor anti-coup demonstrations, a group called the National Front for the Defence of Democracy has emerged. But amid a social crisis, accentuated by high food and fuel prices, there has also been support for the coup on street.

By Saturday, however, many Mauritanians were merely getting on with life. “Nothing has changed,” said businessman Sidi Ethman Chiekh. “The EU and the U.S. have condemned it, there are politicians who are for and against ... but life continues.”

While promising a return to democracy, Abdel Aziz warned: “We do not need recognition for our regime.”

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

Additional reporting by Inal Ersan in Dubai, Daniel Magnowski in Nouakchott, Writing by David Lewis, Editing by Mary Gabriel

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