NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Leaders of a military coup in Mauritania promised on Thursday to hold a free and transparent presidential election as soon as possible, but the United States suspended aid and demanded an immediate return to civilian rule.
Soldiers ousted the nation’s first freely elected president, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, on Wednesday after he tried to dismiss military chiefs widely seen to have turned against Abdallahi in a political crisis in Africa’s newest oil producer.
It was Africa’s first successful coup since some of the same soldiers ousted the Islamic republic’s previous president three years and three days earlier, and it drew broad condemnation abroad and demands for Abdallahi’s release and reinstatement.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the military’s overthrow of the democratically elected government in Mauritania and at present, all non-humanitarian foreign assistance is suspended and under review,” a State Department spokesman said. He said more than $20 million of aid was suspended.
Mauritania has also gained more significance in the U.S.-led war on terror after several al Qaeda attacks in the past year.
Police fired tear gas at a small crowd who protested against the coup, but hundreds more took to the streets of Nouakchott in support of presidential guard chief Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who launched the coup after Abdallahi sacked him.
Overseen by armed soldiers, crowds chanted “Long live the General!” and hooted car horns before retreating from the heat.
Abdel Aziz has set up a “High State Council” of military officers promising to work with civilian leaders to organize a presidential election “in as short a time as possible”.
The council also vowed to respect treaties binding Mauritania, which spans Arab and black Africa at the edge of the Sahara and has close ties with many Arab states. It is one of the few Arab countries to have diplomatic ties with Israel.
“I vow to respect democracy, guarantee justice for everybody and resolve problems across the country,” Abdel Aziz told supporters in his first public appearance since the coup.
Abdallahi won elections last year after a 2005 coup, also instigated by Abdel Aziz, which ended years of dictatorship under President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya.
But Abdallahi had encountered a series of crises as food and fuel price rises increased hardship. He fired one government in May and another cabinet resigned in July when faced with the prospect of a vote of no confidence.
The crisis deepened when most of his PNDD-ADIL party’s members of parliament defected on Monday, accusing Abdallahi of not consulting them and trampling on state institutions.
The international community had high hopes for the young democracy and condemnation was swift from bodies such as the U.N., Arab League and African Union, which has sent an envoy to Mauritania and demanded the president’s immediate release.
The European Union warned that like Washington, it may cut aid. Former colonial power France expressed “total condemnation” of the coup and demanded the immediate freeing of President Abdallahi and all other detainees of the junta.
The president’s daughter Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi, speaking under house arrest via a spokesman, sent “a heartfelt and urgent plea to the U.N. ... to open a constructive dialogue to restore the country’s rightfully elected government”.
High oil and minerals prices have attracted big natural resources investors to Mauritania, though analysts said their operations were not likely to be affected.
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Writing by David Lewis; editing by Alistair Thomson and Andrew Roche