Mon, Nov 10, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Mauritanian elections challenged

REUTERS , NOUAKCHOTT, MAURITANIA

Mauritania's opposition accused authorities in the West African nation on Saturday of rigging an election won by President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya and said it would challenge the result by all legal means.

Taya won two-thirds of the votes in Friday's poll while main challenger Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, the man he ousted in a coup to embark on his iron-fisted 19-year rule, was a distant second with 18.7 percent, official results showed.

During his campaign, Taya promised to deliver prosperity to Mauritania, where many hope offshore oil will bring riches to an impoverished desert nation straddling black and Arab Africa that has a patchy human rights record.

A broad coalition, ranging from liberals to Islamic radicals backing Haidalla, joined with two other losers to denounce fraud and intimidation. In a statement, it said it planned to file proceedings with the constitutional council.

Haidalla, a former military ruler, was briefly detained on the eve of the poll on suspicion of plotting to seize power. He disappeared on Friday evening, fearing for his security. On Saturday, he returned saying he could not leave a sinking ship and warned public protest could follow.

"The coalition for a peaceful change in power declares the 2003 presidential election invalid, null and void," a Haidalla aide, Lo Gourmo, told reporters.

The run-up to the poll in this coup-prone nation, where power has never changed hands at the ballot box since independence from France in 1960, was tense.

"Those in power don't want to share it. This is a pseudo-democracy," said Cheikh Faad Bou Kamara, head of the Mauritanian Association of Human Rights and a sociology professor.

Taya's government has denied all charges of fraud and said the opposition was trying to deceive voters. After seizing power in a 1984 coup, Taya romped home in a 1992 poll, an election held after a massive crackdown on black Mauritanians suspected of plotting a coup.

He won with a massive margin in 1997 when the opposition boycotted the election.

Five months ago, renegade soldiers tried to depose Taya but the uprising was swiftly crushed and the president clamped down on the Islamic radicals he blamed for the attempted putsch.

Announcing the results, the interior minister said Ahmed Ould Daddah, brother of the country's first president, was third with 6.9 percent and Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, a son of black Africans en-slaved by Arabs, had 5 percent.

Turnout was 60.8 percent. There were 2,258 polling stations and 1,107,400 registered voters for Friday's poll.

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