August 25, 2008 / 4:46 PM / 10 years ago

AU chief seeks return to democracy in Mauritania

NOUAKCHOTT, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Africa’s top diplomat pressed Mauritania’s coup leader on Monday to restore democracy in the Saharan Islamic state as the new military rulers struggled to form a government nearly three weeks after their takeover.

Jean Ping, the African Union’s most senior permanent official, held talks in Nouakchott with General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, the presidential guard commander who on Aug. 6 overthrew President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

Ping, a former Gabonese foreign minister who became head of the AU Commission in February, explained to Abdel Aziz the continental body’s decision to suspend Mauritania following the bloodless coup.

“You know that every time there’s an interruption to the democratic system, the AU automatically condemns it,” Ping told reporters immediately after his meeting with the stocky, moustachioed Mauritanian general.

He said he would also seek to meet both supporters and opponents of the coup, including deposed President Abdallahi who has been kept in close detention since the takeover.

Ping said he was optimistic solutions could be found to the political crisis caused by the coup, which has been opposed by some popular streets demonstrations, although a significant segment of Mauritania’s political establishment has backed it.

“What we hope is that we can quickly find a way out of the crisis, that’s what we’re here for,” Ping added, declining to give further details.

The Aug. 6 putsch toppled Abdallahi, Mauritania’s first freely elected head of state, barely 15 months after he took office through elections hailed by international observers as a model for democracy in Africa.

Coup leader Abdel Aziz, who also participated in the 2005 overthrow of authoritarian ruler Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, has said Abdallahi failed to tackle the economic problems squeezing Mauritania’s mostly poor inhabitants.

Since last year, soaring food and fuel prices had triggered sporadic street riots in the largely desert West Saharan nation, which became Africa’s newest oil producer in 2006. It also has rich fisheries stocks and iron ore and gold deposits.

The coup was condemned by the United Nations and its leaders face threats by the United States and the European Union to cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid and over $110 million a year from an EU fisheries deal if Abdallahi is not restored.

DOUBTS OVER ELECTIONS

Asked what future sanctions the AU might take if democratic rule was not restored, Ping took a diplomatic stance.

“You don’t just seek a solution through threats, do you understand that?” he told reporters.

But he made clear the AU wanted to see a return to normality in Mauritania, which he defined as “going back to a situation where the constitution plays a role”.

Abdel Aziz has promised free elections “as soon as possible” but has so far not announced a timetable. He has also said he may stand for president himself, a possibility strongly opposed by Western countries and internal critics of the coup.

There were signs on Monday differences over these issues were hampering efforts by the country’s new military rulers to form a government that would include opponents of deposed President Abdallahi.

Yacoub Ould Moune, a member of parliament from the main opposition Rally of Democratic Forces (RFD) led by veteran politician Ahmed Ould Daddah, said the RFD would not participate in government unless the coup leaders guaranteed transparent elections in which they would not run.

Daddah, who was defeated by Abdallahi in last year's election, was one of the first politicians to meet Abdel Aziz after the coup and RFD parliamentarians said then the party was in line to obtain several government ministries. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/) (Writing by Pascal Fletcher, editing by David Lewis and Mary Gabriel)

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