NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) — Troops ousted Mauritania's president in a military coup on Wednesday after he tried to sack senior army officers accused of being behind a political crisis destabilising the country.
In a move widely condemned by the international community, President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was arrested after military convoys rolled through the capital Nouakchott and took over the presidential palace and the prime minister's office, apparently without a shot being fired.
Soldiers also took over the national radio and television headquarters, replacing the directors, and shut down the international airport.
A statement read on public radio later said General Ould Abdel Aziz, the head of the presidential guard sacked that morning, was leading the coup.
A newly constituted Military State Council said it was immediately annulling the army appointments made by the president.
A source close to the new military regime told AFP that the "presidential elections will happen probably within two months." The source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, added that the council would retain the constitution and institutions like the parliament and the senate.
"The president has just been arrested by a commando, who came to fetch him, arrested him here and took him away," the president's daughter, Amal Mint Cheikh Abdallahi, told Radio France International from the palace.
She said armed men had occupied the presidency and that she was being prevented from leaving the building, but that she had not heard shots fired.
The president's whereabouts were unknown, while Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf was taken to an army barracks near the presidency, security sources said.
The former interior minister and two other officials considered to be close allies of Abdallahi were also arrested, security sources said.
According to the Mauritanian news agency Agence Nouakchott d'Information (ANI), Abdel Aziz met the rest of the government ministers Wednesday afternoon and asked them to stay on in their posts.
The European Union and African Union led international condemnation of the coup, with Brussels saying the move jeopardised a 156 million euro (241 million dollar) five-year aid package currently being finalised.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he "deeply regrets" the coup and called for "the restoration of constitutional order".
The African Union said it was dispatching Ramtane Lamamra, its peace and security commissioner, to "assess the situation on the ground and to assist in promoting a peaceful solution to the crisis."
Condemnation also came from the United States and regional powerhouses South Africa and Nigeria.
The international airport was closed Wednesday but the borders and international telephone communications remained open.
Police fired tear gas grenades to disperse a crowd of about 50 people gathered near one of the main markets during the afternoon, local journalists reported, but the capital of the nation of 3.1 million people was otherwise calm.
The coup comes a little over a year since Abdallahi came to power in elections hailed as a model of democracy for Africa, following a three-year transition after a bloodless coup in August 2005.
Mauritania has been facing a political crisis and on Monday 48 members of parliament walked out on the ruling party less than two weeks after a vote of no confidence in the government prompted a cabinet reshuffle.
Coup leader Abdel Aziz and another general, army chief-of-staff Ould Cheikh Mohamed Ahmed, were accused of being behind the mass walkout, political observers in the capital said.
The breakaway MPs on Wednesday called on the population of Mauritania to march in support of the new military rulers. At a press conference the spokesman for the disgruntled MPs, Sidi Mohamed Ould Maham, read out a statement of support for the coup which they called "a corrective move" which they hoped would be "in the service of democracy".
Earlier on Wednesday Ould Maham said the coup was the result of the president "reaping the fruits of his bad decisions".
The largely desert country has a history of coups since gaining independence from France in 1960.
On top of growing economic and social unrest in the country which has been hard hit by the global food crisis as it imports more than 70 percent of its food needs, Mauritania was shaken by terrorist attacks recently.
Between December 2007 and February 2008 extremists linked to Al-Qaeda carried out three attacks which left seven people dead, including four French tourists.
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