Junta outlines plans for new democracy as ousted president vows to return home

Mauritania's military junta has been outlining its plans for the mainly-desert nation, hoping to shore up the goodwill that has so far greeted it at home, and reassure a displeased international community that it has no intention of clinging on to power indefinitely.

After meeting with the putschists who overthrew President Maaouya Ould Taya in a bloodless coup last week, opposition leaders said the so-called Military Council for Justice and Democracy had promised to hold a referendum on changes to the constitution within a year, to be followed immediately by legislative elections.

The junta also picked a civilian prime minister, Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar, over the weekend to head a caretaker government. He held the same post under Ould Taya before falling out of favour and becoming Mauritania's ambassador to Paris.

Ministers to serve under him are expected to be announced soon.

Opposition leaders said the military council, which has already vowed to be gone within two years, also promised that none of its 17 members, nor anyone in the caretaker government, would stand as candidates in the next elections.

As the coup mastermind Col Ely Ould Mohamed Vall courted diplomats, political parties and the public, ousted president Ould Taya broke his silence from his base in Niger.

On Friday he told Radio France Internationale in the capital, Niamey, that there had "never been a more senseless coup in Africa."

"My situation reminds me of the old adage: 'God save me from my friends, I'll take care of my enemies'," he said.

After the weekend, the tone had hardened.

"As president, I order officers and soldiers of the armed forces and security forces to put an end to this criminal act so that the situation returns to normal," Ould Taya said in remarks broadcast by the Al Arabiya satellite television channel on Monday.

"I will return home, God willing, so that we can together continue the path for a better tomorrow."

The international community has been unanimous in its condemnation of last Wednesday's coup, which happened while Ould Taya was on his way back from attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia's king.

The African Union promptly suspended Mauritania from the organisation, and the United States called for Ould Taya to be reinstated.

In Mauritania however, delighted crowds poured onto the streets, cheering the new dawn, and even Ould Taya's Social Democratic Republican Party (PRDS) issued a statement over the weekend saying it backed the programme outlined by the military council to take the country back to democracy.

On Sunday, the new military rulers ordered the release of 21 Islamic activists who had been jailed by Ould Taya for their alleged links to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an Algerian-based movement allied to al Qaeda.

Vall said that there was no valid proof behind the allegations made against these 21 people, a diplomatic source told IRIN.

Vall took part in the putsch that brought Ould Taya to power in 1984 and served at his side as the nation's security chief for almost two decades. Observers caution that it is a question of waiting and seeing whether he will keep his promises and really break with 21 years of his former boss' authoritarian rule.

A further possible temptation is the fact that Mauritania is due to start producing 75,000 barrels of crude oil a day from its offshore Chinguetti field early next year, and petrodollars will start flowing in to this country that straddles black and Arab Africa.

If the junta's election pledges are stuck to, the next polling day would be the first time power has changed hands at the ballot box since Mauritania's independence from France in 1960.