BEIRUT, Lebanon - The elected president of Mauritania was ousted yesterday in a bloodless military coup that appeared to spell the end for the Arab nation's experiment in democracy.
A council led by a military commander ousted President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi and placed him and other government officials in the North African country under house arrest.
There were no reports of gunfire or violence. But Arab news channels showed scenes of black-clad riot police firing tear gas and chasing after civilians in the streets of Nouakchott, the capital. The country's main airport was shut down, and soldiers in military vehicles stood outside government buildings, the reports said.
Democracy advocates condemned the move.
"The duly and fairly elected president was deposed by an unelected military figure," Les Campbell, Middle East and North Africa director for the National Democratic Institute, said in a telephone interview. His Washington-based nonprofit group promotes American-style democracy overseas.
"Mauritania has all the features of a potentially self-correcting democracy," he said. "The military shouldn't be stepping in. If there's a correction to be made, it should be made by the people."
The former French colony is a mostly desert nation of 3 million on Africa's northwestern corner. Poverty is high, with per capita income of less than $2 a day.
Mauritania made a drastic step toward democratic rule after a bloodless 2005 coup that ousted longtime ruler Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya. The military junta that took over followed through on promises for Mauritania's first fair and free elections, which elevated Abdallahi to power in 2007.
"What is going on in Mauritania is a coup d'etat organized by rebels who were sacked by the president on Wednesday morning," Abdullah Mamadouba, the official spokesman of the president, told Al-Jazeera television. "It is a coup against the constitutional legitimacy in Mauritania."
U.S., European and African Union officials condemned the takeover.
Mauritania is one of only three Arab League nations to maintain formal ties with Israel, which has endeared it to Washington. Abdallahi had also cooperated closely with U.S. security forces in clamping down on self-proclaimed al-Qaida cells in his country.
A December attack linked to al-Qaida killed four French tourists.
Abdallahi ran afoul of some leading military figures. He recently fired several, including the head of the presidential guard, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who led the drive against him. The new junta's first move was to rescind the firings.
Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.