Opposition leader arrested after president re-elected

President Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya of Mauritania has been re-elected for a further six years with 66.7 percent of the vote, according to official results from Friday's election, which was denounced by the main opposition candidates as rigged.

His main challenger, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, was arrested on Sunday, officials of Ould Haidalla's election campaign said. The government accused him of plotting a coup earlier in the week.

Ould Haidalla, a 63-year-old former army colonel, was military head of state of this desert country of 2.5 million people from 1980 to 1984. He was overthrown by Ould Taya in a bloodless coup.

Since then Ould Taya has ruled Mauritania with an iron hand, surviving several coup attempts, the most recent of which was in June.

Over the past three months, Ould Haidalla had put together a broad coalition of interest groups that were determined to get rid of Ould Taya through the ballot box, despite opposition allegations of fraud in the two previous presidential elections in 1992 and 1997.

His supporters ranged from Islamic radicals, who have been persecuted by Ould Taya, to liberal reformers and former supporters of the incumbent head of state.

According to official election results issued by the Ministry of the Interior on Saturday, Ould Haidalla came second in the election with 18.7 percent of the votes cast.

His arrest at dawn the following morning came as no surprise.

Last Tuesday two of Ould Haidalla's sons were detained by police and on Wednesday the government accused the opposition presidential candidate of plotting a coup. Ould Haidalla and at least four of his close associates were arrested briefly on Thursday afternoon, hours before polling began. The state prosecutor said then that Ould Haidalla would be charged with plotting a coup and endangering state security, but he was released without explanation a few hours later.

On Saturday, Ould Haidalla and the two other main opposition candidates, Ahmed Ould Daddah and Messoud Ould Boulkheir, jointly called on the Mauritanian people to reject the official results of the election, claiming they had been rigged.

An unofficial group of independent Mauritanian election monitors agreed. Mafhoud Ould Bettah, a member of the group told IRIN that although Ould Taya had brought the trappings of democracy to Mauritania, the system simply didn't work. "These institutions are just a facade because he hasn't gone all the way." he told IRIN.

Ould Daddah, a half-brother of Mauritania's first president Moktar Ould Daddah, was officially credited with 6.9 percent of the vote.

"There was a sceintific preparation of the fraud as I was supposed to come in fourth place," Ould Daddah told IRIN. He was officially credited with a third of the vote when he first stood against Ould Taya in 1992.

Ould Boulkheir, a member of the black Harratin Moorish community which formerly served as a slave class to the politically-dominant light-skinned Bidan Moors, officially came third with 5.3 percent.

According to the Minsitry of the Interior, 60.8 percent of the 1.1 million registered voters turned out to cast a ballot.

Ould Taya refused to allow foreign or local observer teams to officially monitor the election.

All the African and European diplomats in Nouakchott contacted by IRIN, refused to comment on the conduct of the poll. However Ould Taya received early endorsement from neighbouring Morocco. King Mohammed VI sent a message of congratulations on his re-election.

A former friend of deposed Iraqi leader Sadaam Hussein, Ould Taya has changed his political colours over the past decade to become a staunch ally of the United States. His government is one of very few members of the Arab League to have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Mauritania depends on revenues from iron ore exports and fishing, but there are hopes that foreign oil companies will soon go ahead with the development of oil found offshore.