- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — A military junta overthrew Mauritania’s U.S.-allied president while he was in Saudi Arabia for a ceremonial transfer of power yesterday, prompting celebrations in this oil-rich Islamic nation that looked increasingly to the West amid threats from al Qaeda-linked militants.

The coup was the fourth attempt in the Saharan state since June 2003. In 1999, Mauritania became the third Arab nation to recognize Israel, joining Egypt and Jordan.

The new rulers promised to yield to democratic rule within two years, but African leaders and the United States were quick to condemn the coup, declaring that the days of authoritarianism and military rule must end across the continent.

President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya seized power in a 1984 coup and dealt ruthlessly with his opponents.

In his absence from the country, presidential guardsmen cut broadcasts from the national radio and television stations at dawn and seized a building housing the army chief of staff headquarters.

Later in the day, the junta named the national police chief, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, as the country’s new leader.

Col. Vall, 55, was considered a confidant of Mr. Taya’s and developed a reputation of calmness and reserve while serving as army chief since 1987.

The junta statement identified Col. Vall as “president” of the military council that seized power. It named 16 other army officers, nearly all colonels, who would rule the country.

Mr. Taya, who had allied his overwhelmingly Muslim nation with the United States and others in the war on terrorism, refused comment after arriving yesterday in nearby Niger from Saudi Arabia.

The State Department joined the African Union in calling for the restoration of the government.

“We call for a peaceful return for order under the constitution and the established government of President Taya,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington, adding that the United States was reaching out and talking with officials from the government.

He also said the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott was open but Americans were advised to stay home and take precautions to ensure their safety. There are 200 to 300 Americans in the desert nation, mostly aid workers and members of the Peace Corps, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. military has sent special operations troops to train Mauritania’s army, most recently in June as part of efforts to deny terrorists sanctuary in the under-policed Sahara desert region. The troops were part of a regionwide training operation.

The junta identified itself in a statement on the state-run news agency as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy.

“The armed forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered much over the last several years,” the junta said.

The junta said it would exercise power for up to two years to allow time to put in place “open and transparent” democratic institutions.

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