Ould Taya survives coup attempt

Mauritanian President Maaouiya Sid Ahmed Ould Taya took to the airwaves on Monday to praise loyal army units for seeing off a coup attempt which led to two days of heavy fighting in the capital.

"The patriotic forces beat this plot that aimed to end the process of development and emancipation", he said in a radio broadcast after two days of heavy fighting in the capital Nouakchott.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Ould Taya appeared to have been ousted as rebel forces took over the presidential palace after launching a coup early on Sunday morning. France and the United States both issued strong denials that he had taken refuge in their embassies.

The government of this Islamic desert state of less than three million people appeared to have been caught badly off-guard by the coup plot.

Rebel soldiers moved onto the streets in the early hours of Sunday morning, targeting the presidential palace and military headquarters. Residents contacted by telephone from Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire said there was heavy machine gun and tank fire in the city centre. There were also reports of fighting around the airport and the southern districts of the city.

After a brief announcement on Sunday morning that the government was in control of the situation, state radio went off the air for more than 24 hours.

However, no rebel spokesman emerged to outline the coup plotters’ agenda or give any clues about the identity of the insurgents. Speculation focused on several dissident officers within the military, notably an army colonel, Salah Ould Henena.

There was widespread speculation that the coup was provoked by a government crackdown on Islamic radicals following the US-led invasion of Iraq and the ousting of Sadaam Hussein. Several dozen opposition figures were arrested last month and the government closed down the Arabic language weekly newspaper Erraya, accusing it of subversion.

One resident in Noukchott contacted by IRIN on Sunday afternoon said he was convinced the coup had succeeded. But that prediction proved wrong. Loyalists troops, apparently backed by heavily armed reinforcements sent from garrisons north of the capital, gained ground afterwards.

Following a relatively quiet night, fighting flared up again on Monday morning, but soon died down. By midday, people were driving round the city honking car horns and brandishing pictures of Ould Taya. One western diplomat monitoring the situation told IRIN: "the government has prevailed in this".

A government source said army Chief of Staff, Mohamed Lemine ould N’Diayane, had been killed during the fighting.

Ould Taya took power in a bloodless coup in December 1984 and subsequently founded the Social Democratic Republican Party (PRDS), which has ruled ever since.

The presidentlegalised opposition parties in 1991, but the opposition has repeatedly complained of harassment and manipulation. It boycotted the last presidential election in 1997. A fresh vote is due in November this year

Mauritania’s image in sub-Saharan Africa and further abroad has been tarnished by allegations that slavery is still condoned, a charge strongly denied by the government. Ethnic pogroms in both Nouakchott and Dakar in 1989 led to a break in diplomatic relations with neighbouring Senegal.

Mauritania was viewed as one of Iraq’s main allies in Africa until the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1991. Ould Taya subsequently broke ties with Baghdad and developed close links with the United States instead. This new cosiness with the Washington led Mauritania to become only the third Arab League state to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999, a move strongly criticised by opposition parties.

The economy of this former French colony relies on iron ore mining and fishing, but there are hopes of developing offshore oil following a promising find two years ago. Despite this potential bonanza, the World Food Programme has warned of severe food shortages in the east of the country following a sixth consecutive year of drought.

"There are good things happening in terms of democracy and the economy", one western diplomat based in Nouakchott told IRIN. "It would be a much more difficult situation here if the coup had succeeded".