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Mauritania to Hold Presidential Elections Friday

Opposition candidates in the largely desert West African country of Mauritania are mounting a strong challenge to the country's long-serving president in campaigning for elections on November 7.

Observers say the main challenger is Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla. He was deposed in a 1984 coup by President Maaouiya Ould Taya but now has strong support among Islamic activists, liberal reformers and the military. His campaign rallies across Mauritania have attracted tens of thousands of supporters.

Thousands have also attended campaign stops by Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, the first Haratin presidential candidate in Arab-dominated Mauritania. Haratins are descendants of West African slaves who were captured by Arab Berber tribesmen.

Mr. Ould Boulkheir says he believes a large number of black nationals living in the south will vote for him, although he calls himself a candidate for unity.

Another main opposition candidate is Ahmed Ould Daddah, the half-brother of Mauritania's founding father, Mokhtar Ould Daddah, who died last month.

The main opposition leaders boycotted the previous multi-party elections in 1997, saying they were being intimidated by the government.

President Ould Taya won that election against minor candidates with more than 90 percent of the vote. The president, who survived a coup attempt in June, says he is the candidate for stability and prosperity.

An analyst for the World Markets Research Center, Kate Luxford, says many opposition members are worried that this time, facing stiffer opponents, the president and his supporters may resort to cheating on election day and in the counting process.

"The opposition parties do remain concerned about the prospect of a lack of transparency because there are no independent election monitors, a few U.S. monitors have arrived, but I think there are only about seven of them which are unable to oversee the whole election so there are concerns about vote rigging, ballot box stuffing and also the fact that the president has used public officials in building his re-election bid and opposition candidates believe that it is unfair and it is giving him an unfair advantage," said Kate Luxford.

The winner of Mauritania's presidential election will likely benefit from an imminent oil boom as developers have started testing wells in the Chinguetti field in deep water off the Mauritanian coast. That would make Mauritania the latest West African country after Chad, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equatorial Guinea to enter the oil market.

Campaigning for Friday's voting ends Wednesday. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, a second round will be held later this month.