Washington Wants Mauritanian Military to Stop Blocking Deposed President

The Obama administration is criticizing Mauritania's military government for preventing the nation's deposed president from meeting with foreign diplomats to discuss plans for a return to democracy. Mauritania's first freely-elected leader was toppled in a military coup last August.

The U.S. State Department says Mauritania's military blocking of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheik Abdellahi shows that he is still being denied basic rights of movement and association and that his personal security may be at risk.

Mauritanian security forces Thursday stopped President Abdellahi's convoy at the village of Wad Naga, about 50 kilometers from Nouakchott. After searching his vehicle and asking for his driver's license, they informed him that he alone would be allowed to continue on to the capital without his convoy of supporters, family members, and parliamentarians.

Mr. Abdellahi's spokesman Ahmed Ould Sanbe says police told the toppled president that they did not object to his visiting the capital as a private citizen but they would not permit him to return in a manner befitting a head of state.

Sanbe says security forces ordered that only one car from the motorcade would be allowed to leave for the capital each hour. President Abdellahi refused. After four hours in Wad Naga, the motorcade returned to his hometown of Lemden, more than 200 kilometers away.

This was Mr. Abdellahi's first attempt to return to the capital since he was released from house arrest last month. He had invited foreign diplomats to his home in Nouakchott to outline what Sanbe says are his proposals for resolving Mauritania's political crisis.

Police surrounded his home in the capital and disrupted plans for a welcoming ceremony at the home of the National Assembly speaker outside Nouakchott.

General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz toppled the Abdellahi government last August after the president tried to fire him.

General Aziz has since organized a political forum to recommend changing the constitution to permit the military to run for office in elections now scheduled for June. The general says allowing members of the military to stand as candidates after resigning their commission reflects what he calls Mauritania's "new political and cultural reality."

President Abdellahi and nearly one-third of parliament boycotted the political forum and oppose new elections. As Mauritania's first freely-elected leader, Mr. Abdellahi says he intends to return to power.

General Aziz is trying to avoid additional international sanctions that followed his take-over. The United States issued travel restrictions on the coup leaders. Washington blocked $15 million in military cooperation, more than $4 million in peacekeeping training, and $3 million in development assistance.

The European Union is threatening to withhold $230 million in development funding. The African Union has suspended Mauritania and is working with the European Union, the United States, the Arab League, and the Islamic Conference to sanction Mauritania's military rulers.

In its first public comments on the political crisis in Mauritania, the Obama administration called on the military government to allow President Abdellahi's full participation in the political process, to assure his freedom of movement and association, and to guarantee his personal safety.

In a written statement, the new administration said the regime's plans to organize "unconstitutional elections along with its attempts to silence President Abdellahi and his supporters violate democratic norms."  The State Department called for an immediate return to constitutional order in Mauritania.

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