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Mauritania's Leading Opposition Candidate Detained - 2003-11-06

Police in Mauritania have arrested the leading opposition presidential candidate, a day before the election.

The candidate, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah, was detained at the national police headquarters under the jurisdiction of the political police, a special unit under the Minister for the Interior. It is not clear what, if any, charges have been made against Mr. Ould Haidallah.

An official of his campaign, who only gave his name as Hassan, confirmed that Mr. Ould Haidallah had been arrested. Mr. Hassan said Mr. Ould Haidallah had been arrested, and was being held along with two others from his staff, his spokesman Ali Ould Sneba and the director of the campaign, Mohamed Ould Dallah.

According to Mr. Ould Haidallah's son-in-law, Mohamed Ould Elvadhel, who witnessed the arrest, a dozen armed policemen came to the family home and took Mr. Ould Haidallah by force. Mr. Ould Elvadhel said police entered the house violently and swiftly, and grabbed Mr. Ould Haidallah by the wrist to take him away.

Around the police headquarters where Mr. Ould Haidallah is being held, police in full riot gear pushed back his supporters, who gathered to demand his release. Enraged supporters taunted the police, shouting, "What kind of democracy is this?"

More arrests have been made in the area, and police used tear gas to keep back reporters and photographers.

Mr. Ould Haidallah is a former head of state who came to power through a coup d'état, and was later deposed by current President Maaouiya Ould Taya in another coup.

Mr. Ould Haidallah's arrest follows the arrest of his two sons Wednesday. Police searched the family home Tuesday, and say they confiscated weapons that could have been used to make trouble after the election. But Mr. Ould Haidallah's spokesman says they were just two old hunting rifles.

His supporters say the government is trying to slur Mr. Ould Haidallah's name before Friday's presidential voting.