New prime minister named

Mauritanian President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya on Sunday named his Justice Minister, Sghaier Ould Mbarek, as the new Prime Minister replacing Cheikh El Avia Ould Mohamed Khouna, the latest in a string of changes within the ruling establishment since last month's failed coup.

Mbarek, a 56-year old lawyer who served before as health and social affairs minister, education minister, rural development and environment minister, was named in a decree signed by Taya in the capital, Nouakchott. No official reason was given for the changes.

He replaced Khouma, who served as Prime in 1995-97 and again from 1998 till Sunday. But analysts described the appointment as "political", saying Mbarek appointment resulted from two major political considerations.

First was to the issue of Mauritania's legacy of slavery which was abolished in the Islamic West African state in 1980, ending the use of members of the Harratin community or "black" Moors as slaves and servants.

Mbarek is the first "Harratin" to occupy such a high post. His nomination, the analysts said, represented the government's latest attempt to promote human rights and equality among the nation's 2.5 million inhabitants who comprise Harratins, "white" Moors and Black Africans.

The second consideration was an attempt by Taya, who has been in power since 1984, to win over voters from Mbarek's home region of Hodh Ech Chargu. The eastern Mauritanian region comprises a large population who are among the poorest in the country. They often complain of being marginalized.

Unidentified armed men attempted to topple Taya on 8 June. But the coup attempt was put down after two days of heavy fighting in Nouakchott. The coup attempt against Taya, who came to power through a military coup of his own making 19 years ago, came after a month-long crackdown on Islamic militants and opposition leaders in general.

Taya had close links with the deposed Iraqi leader Sadaam Hussein. But he distanced himself from Baghdad after Iraq's 1991 invasion of Kuwait and developed close links with the US and Israel instead. In 1999, Mauritania became only the third member of the Arab League to establish full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, a move that proved widely unpopular at home.

Meanwhile Mauritanians will have the opportunity to vote for the country's first female presidential candidate, 43-year old businesswoman, Aicha Mint Jiddana during presidential elections on 7 November. In a country where women are restricted according to Islamic laws, her candidature is seen as breaking a taboo.

Jiddana is campaigning for the promotion women's rights, ending female genital mutilation and forced marriage, among other things. She is a former member of Taya's Democratic and Social Republican Party. Taya is expected to seek a further six-year term as the leader of this desert nation.