Mauritania Coup Chief Leads March in Capital, Promises Free Elections 'Soon'

The army general who successfully toppled Mauritania's government staged a show of force Thursday, leading several thousand supporters in a march through the capital. His police fired tear gas at the few who protested the coup.

Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, architect of Wednesday's coup and another back in 2005, stood on the back of an open Land Cruiser wearing his military uniform and a green beret. As he waved to the crowd, throngs of people held up giant posters of him and chanted slogans like "Yes to the coup!" and "We support the military!"

Addressing the Mauritanian people for the first time since the change of government, Aziz declared he was "determined to save democracy."

"It's the army that brought an end to dictatorship in 2005. And today it's once again she that brings an end to dictatorship, to nepotism, to chaos and disorder," he yelled.

Elsewhere in this West African capital, police fired tear gas to disperse about 100 anti-coup protesters on the steps of parliament who called Thursday for the country's ousted president to be reinstated.

"No to the coup! Yes to our legitimate president!" they chanted.

A day after overthrowing the government, Mauritania's new military junta announced plans to hold free and transparent elections "as soon as possible."

The junta leaders did not announce a date for the elections nor did they specify a reason for toppling the 15-month-old government of President Sidi Cheikh Ould Abdallahi, the first freely elected president in this desert nation in over two decades.

However Abdallahi and parliament had been locked in an increasingly bitter political fight over the president's overtures to Islamic radicals, his ties to allies of a reviled former dictator and his alleged corruption and misuse of public funds. The coup began early Wednesday after Abdallahi fired the country's top four generals, reportedly for supporting the lawmakers.

Until elections are held, Mauritania will be governed by an 11-member council, which will make sure that government institutions continue to function normally, according to a junta statement read early Thursday on national TV. The council will be led by Aziz, the former commander of the presidential guard.

"We will engage in a dialogue with all the political parties and all civic institutions in organizing these elections," the junta said.

Wednesday's bloodless coup reflected the internal struggle over how to manage this desperately poor desert nation, which straddles the Arab and African worlds and is Africa's newest, if small-scale, oil producer.

Still, Nouakchott remained calm throughout the change and by Thursday, merchants were selling their wares, taxis and buses were crisscrossing the capital and government bureaucrats had reported for work.

Mauritania's last coup in 2005 was wildly popular in the streets and silently applauded abroad because it ended the 21-year rule of an unpopular dictator, paving the way for the 2007 elections that brought back civilian rule.

Coup leaders then promised the 2007 presidential elections would not include any junta candidates and delivered on that promise.

Still, Wednesday's change of power was swiftly condemned by the United States, the European Union and the African Union, which said it would send an envoy to Nouakchott.

Soldiers seized Abdallahi at his living quarters inside the presidential compound early Wednesday, took control of state radio and television and announced the formation of a new state council.

"He fired the generals and that is his constitutional right," Abdoulaye Mamadou Ba, the president's spokesman told The Associated Press. "President Abdallahi is the victim of a coup concocted by the army with the connivance of lawmakers in parliament."

Amal Cheikh Abdallahi, the president's daughter, said she remained "extremely worried" about her father. She and her mother were sequestered inside the presidential palace.

"We have no idea where my father is," she said.

With a population of 3.4 million, Mauritania has seen more than 10 coups or attempted coups since independence from France in 1960. While most of its people live on about $5 a day, relatively small oil reserves were discovered in 2006.