NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritanian security forces beat and fired tear gas at opponents of the ruling military junta on Sunday when they defied a government ban on street demonstrations, Reuters witnesses said.
Scores of supporters of ousted President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who has been under house arrest since military chiefs ousted him in August, gathered near Nouakchott’s main hospital and tried to block roads using cars emblazoned with his portrait.
“Long live President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi,” protesters shouted before paramilitary gendarmes fired tear gas at them and beat some of them with batons. Gendarmes also broke up several smaller groups of 10 to 20 protesters.
Top military chiefs led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, seized power in the iron ore-mining Islamic Saharan state on August 6 after Abdallahi tried to sack them.
The officers formed a ruling military “High Council of State” and accused Abdallahi, Mauritania’s first democratically elected leader, of overstepping his authority during a power struggle with parliament in the weeks leading up to the coup.
The junta has promised to hold a free and transparent presidential election but has refused to release Abdallahi or give any guarantee that Abdel Aziz will not stand as president.
The United Front for the Defense of Democracy (FUDD), a group of parties opposed to the coup, called Sunday’s protest.
Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Laghdaff has outlawed all public demonstrations ahead of a series of planned “national days of consultation,” designed to pave the way for elections.
The protest came ahead of Monday’s deadline, set by the African Union, for the junta to release Abdallahi from detention or face possible sanctions from the continental bloc, which has already suspended Mauritania over the coup.
It is unclear what sanctions the AU would impose, especially as several of its members in the region have given their tacit approval to the coup. But overseas donors including the United States, France and the World Bank have acted quickly to cut aid.
The European Union has begun proceedings under its Cotonou Agreement with developing former colonies that could lead to further aid cuts. Prime Minister Laghdaf said last week Mauritania could turn to its Arab partners for help instead.
Even so, Abdel Aziz’s military junta is isolated at a time Mauritanian forces are struggling to stem the spread of al Qaeda, whose North African arm has launched a series of attacks in the past year, fuelling fears it is expanding south.
After the most recent attack, 11 army soldiers and their civilian guide were found with their heads cut off near the country’s main iron ore mine in the remote northwestern Sahara.
“I wish the soldiers were on the borders defending the country instead of assuming they have the right to ride roughshod over the fundamental right to demonstrate,” university lecturer Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Babah Ahmed said at the protest.
Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Louise Ireland