NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) – Mauritania”s capital was calm on Thursday as the country waited for announcements from a group of officers who said they had seized power to end more than two decades of "totalitarian" rule by the president.
Triumphant crowds cheered a statement broadcast on state media on Wednesday that President Maaouya Ould Sid”Ahmed Taya had been overthrown in an apparently bloodless coup, the latest in a series of attempts to oust him in recent years.
Officers said in the statement signed by the "Military Council for Justice and Democracy" that they would rule for up to two years in the West African country, which aims to start pumping offshore oil next year.
Opposition leaders welcomed the prospect of a change of government, but said the army must not outstay its welcome.
"In this crisis situation, a regime change was inevitable. But we would have wished that this be done in a controlled democratic way with all the parties involved," said Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, president of the Popular Progressive Alliance.
Many people headed to work as usual in the capital early on Thursday. Traffic flowed freely and small groups of soldiers guarded key buildings, though in smaller numbers than on Wednesday, witnesses said.
State radio said the 17-member military council would be headed by Colonel Ely Ould Mohammad Vall, naming a list of members comprised of officers in the country”s various security forces.
The African Union, South Africa and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan all condemned the seizure of power by force in Mauritania, a country of 2.9 million people.
The United States demanded that Taya be restored to power.
"We join the African Union in condemning the violence in Mauritania. And we call for a peaceful return for order under the constitution and the established government of President Taya," State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.
A Western oil executive, who declined to be named, said the apparent support of senior figures in the security establishment would bolster the coup leaders” position, although they may still come under international pressure.
"If your chief of police and your head of national security have gone you have got to wonder how many friends you have got left, it”s now a diplomatic game, the question is whether anyone is going to come to Taya”s side," he said, adding that the country”s close-knit society may discourage violence.
"In Mauritania everybody is everybody else”s brother or cousin, so they are not going to start fighting in the streets," he said.
The mostly desert country is due to start producing 75,000 barrels of crude per day from its offshore Chinguetti field early in 2006, and hopes to find more reserves onshore.
Taya, who first seized power in a 1984 putsch, has angered many Arabs in the country by shifting support from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to Israel and Washington in the 1990s.
Taya, who was in Saudi Arabia for King Fahd”s funeral on Tuesday, landed in Niger”s capital hours after news of troop movements in Nouakchott. His PRDS party denounced the coup.
Mauritania, an Islamic Republic, is one of only three Arab League member states that have diplomatic ties with Israel. It is considered one of the most repressive countries in the region toward Islamist movements.
Troops nearly toppled Taya in 2003 during two days of fighting in Nouakchott, before loyalists prevailed. The government says it foiled two coup bids in 2004.