NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) — Troops staged a coup in the West African nation of Mauritania on Wednesday, arresting the president and prime minister and shutting down state radio and television, security sources said.
Troops moved through the capital and detained President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf after the president named a new head of the army, security sources and witnesses said.
They chased staff away from the state broadcaster and surrounded the presidency though there was no sign of fighting.
"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 presidential palace in Nouakchott.
"This is a real coup d'etat," she said.
Abdallahi 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 during the coup.
The president's whereabouts were unknown, while the prime minister had been taken to an army barracks near the presidency, security sources said.
The capital of the nation of 3.1 million people was reported to be calm, with little evidence of the turmoil, witnesses said, though troops had surrounded the presidency and the state broadcaster.
Abdallahi became Mauritania's first democratically elected president last year after a period of transition supervised by a military council that deposed the previous president in a bloodless coup in August 2005.
Mauritania has been facing a political crisis and on Monday 48 MPs walked out on the ruling party less than two weeks after a vote of no confidence in the government prompted a cabinet reshuffle.
Renegade lawmakers criticised Abdallahi's exercise of "personal power", adding that he had "disappointed the hopes of Mauritanians," a spokesman for the group said on Monday.
The coup was apparently triggered when Abdallahi moved to replace generals accused of stirring up the political crisis.
A decree read out on national radio early Wednesday named a new chief of the army and the presidential guard, replacing General Ould Cheikh Mohamed Ahmed and General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, two members of the transition council which ushered in the elections which Abdallahi won in 2007.
Political observers in Nouakchott say the two generals were accused of being behind the mass walkout of ruling party MPs on Monday.
The breakaway MPs said they will form a new party because they want a change of direction in the country, which imports more than 70 percent of its food and has been hard hit by the global food crisis.
The Mauritanian president last month threatened to dissolve parliament after MPs filed a motion of no confidence in his new government, which then resigned.
Recently, they tried to call a special session of parliament to create a commission to investigate the country's response to the rising cost of living, and also the financing of a foundation run by the president's wife.
The largely desertified country has a history of coups since its independence from France in 1960.
Mauritania was shaken between December 2007 and February 2008 by three attacks from extremists linked to Al-Qaeda which left seven people dead including four French tourists.
The attacks caused the organisers of the 2008 Dakar rally to cancel the race, which usually crosses the Mauritanian deserts.
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