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Mauritanian Opposition Calls for Dialogue - 2004-08-11

Opposition leaders in Mauritania are calling for dialogue with the government as dozens of people are being arrested following the latest alleged coup plot.

Senior opposition leader Mohammed Ould Mawloud says, unless the government begins crisis talks with the opposition on improving democracy, coup attempts and rumors of such coups will continue.

He says the lack of political freedom endangers the future stability of Mauritania and that there could even be civil war. His party, the Union for the Forces of Progress, has three of the 11 parliament seats held by the opposition. Many newspapers are censored, while political parties rarely have meetings for fear of security crackdowns.

Between 20 to 100 people, including army officers, political activists and alleged Islamic radicals are believed to have been detained this week. Arrests of civilians were reported to continue on Wednesday.

Other opposition leaders, who deny their involvement, say the government fabricates coup plots to jail opponents.

Prominent Islamic leaders also deny they were involved in the alleged coup plot, saying they are against the use of force, which is why they are opposed to President Maaouya Ould Taya. He came to power in a 1984 coup.

Since then, President Taya has been elected three times, in elections observers have characterized as seriously flawed.

In a message that has been repeated almost every hour on state radio since Tuesday, a defense ministry official accuses the coup plotters of trying to take over when President Taya was due to travel to France later this week.

The official told local radio the plotters are the same ones who led another aborted coup attempt in June last year, before fleeing the capital Nouakchott.

A Mauritania expert for the London-based World Markets Research Center, Oliver Owen, believes there was a legitimate coup plot, but says it's not surprising given the level of political frustration.

"You have a fa├žade of transition to democracy. You have that combined with a very repressive authoritarian regime which is absolutely committed to not giving any ground in terms of representation for anyone else whatsoever," said Mr. Owen. "You have this constant play-off between opposition forces wanting to get involved in a democratic game and a constant sense of people frustrated by these attempts. It includes links within the military who then see themselves in a position to do something about it at any critical time that comes up."

President Taya is still expected to attend World War II ceremonies scheduled to take place in southern France this coming Sunday. In recent years, he has strengthened ties with the West, including the United States. Mauritania is a large, mostly empty, Arab-dominated country, with untapped offshore oil reserves.