Army Seizes Control of Oil-Rich Mauritania

Army officers seize power in the West African nation of Mauritania. The president was out the country at the time of his ouster. The junta said it would rule for up to two years while it established what it called "democratic institutions" in the oil-rich Islamic nation. The coup was bloodless, and there was general celebration after the takeover. Michele Norris talks with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There was a bloodless coup today in the West African nation of Mauritania. Army officers grabbed power while the president was out of the country. Mauritania has been an ally of the United States, and it has significant oil reserves. The officers who took power say a military junta will rule for up to two years. During this time, they say they'll establish what they called `democratic institutions.' NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now from nearby Niger.

Ofeibea, what sparked today's takeover?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Hard to say, except that it was the Presidential Guard of ousted President Maaouya Ould Sid-Ahmed(ph) Taya who apparently launched this coup d'etat, and he himself is a former coup leader. Twenty-one years ago he came to power, having toppled the regime, and now he has been toppled. There are enemies galore who could want President Taya out, and it looks as if it they've had their way today. But it was actually his army officers who ousted him.

NORRIS: But where is the president now, and have we heard from him? Has he reacted to this ouster?

QUIST-ARCTON: He hasn't responded, but he's right here in Niger, a couple of countries to the east from Mauritania. He was actually on his way back from Saudi Arabia, where he had attended King Fahd's funeral, but he had to stop over here because it was very early in the morning that we heard reports of gunfire in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, and the fact that soldiers had taken over. So he didn't even get back home; he was out of the country.

NORRIS: What's happening back in Mauritania? How are people reacting there?

QUIST-ARCTON: There has been jubilation in the streets. After 21 years of President Ould Taya, the army said that they had staged this coup because they wanted to end a totalitarian regime, and they wanted up to two years to put in democratic institutions. President Taya's regime was seen as something oppressive, although he had very close relations over the past five, 10 years with the United States, he joined the US war on terror. And, as you know, Mauritania is about to start pumping oil. Many people in Mauritania, which is an Islamic state, saw closer relations with the West and, also, relations with Israel, one of only three Arab League countries, as totally wrong. So there are several people, several groups, within Mauritania who wanted to see Ould Taya out.

NORRIS: Ofeibea, as you note, Mauritania hopes to start pumping oil early next year. Did oil wealth play a part in today's takeover?

QUIST-ARCTON: Hard to say, because we don't know exactly which group has taken over. But certainly relations with the West, relations with the US, the fact that the US is now looking to this part of Africa, the Sahara Desert, as its new frontier against terror and the fact that it's looking more and more, with instability in the Middle East, to West Africa for more and more oil reserves and oil supplies for the US, it could be precisely these groups and those who are seen as Islamic extremists and terrorists by ousted President Taya who said, `Well, enough is enough. He's far too close to Washington. He's far too close with the West. This is the time, when he's absent from the country, to drive him out.'

NORRIS: Ofeibea, thank you so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Pleasure.

NORRIS: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, speaking to us from Niger.

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