African Union Threatens Mauritania With Suspension

By George Obulutsa

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.

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

His statement said Mauritania had signed up to several AU conventions that prohibit unconstitutional changes of government, including one that it ratified last month: the African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance.

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, said on Friday they would appoint a new government to run the country until new elections.

But condemnation of the coup 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.

An Arab League team met the coup leader on Saturday and Ahmed Ben Hilli, the organization’s assistant secretary general for political affairs, said he had been given reassurances of a return to democracy but no date for polls.

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.

Abdallahi is being held at a secret location. His daughter, released from house arrest with the rest of his family late on Thursday, said he needed medical attention.

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 Defense of Democracy has emerged. But amid a social crisis, accentuated by high food and fuel prices, there has been considerable support for the coup on street.

“The deposed president toppled himself through a series of wrong steps that he made lately, hijacking the country away from the gains of democracy,” Abdel Aziz said, adding that his junta would revive the democratic institutions and impose justice.

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