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mauritania: main opposition candidate arrested on

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    MAURITANIA: Main opposition candidate arrested on eve of presidential election


    NOUAKCHOTT, 6 Nov 2003 (IRIN) - Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, the main opposition challenger to Mauritanian President Maaouiya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, was arrested on the eve of Friday's presidential election, eyewitnesses and officials of Ould Haidalla's election campaign officials said.

    The arrest of Ould Haidalla and four of his close associates followed government allegations on Wednesday that the former head of state was plotting a coup against Ould Taya, who has ruled this desert state of 2.5 million people with an iron hand for the past 19 years.

    State Prosecutor, Mohammed Abderramane Ould Abdi, told reporters that the five men would be charged with planning a coup and "threatening state security."

    Their arrest followed a police raid on Ould Haidalla's house in the capital, Nouakchott, on Monday and the arrest of two of the presidential candidate's sons the next day.

    Ould Haidalla, 72, is a former army colonel who was military head of state from 1980 until 1984. He was overthrown by Ould Taya in a bloodless coup, but is now seeking a comeback through the ballot box with a powerful call for change at the top.

    Ould Haidalla has assembled a broad coalition of liberal reformers, Islamic radicals and former supporters of Ould Taya. During the two-week election campaign he consistently attracted larger crowds at his election rallies than any of the other five presidential candidates.

    His military background has also earned him considerable respect in the army, which has always played a key role in Mauritanian politics.

    At the age of 70, Ould Taya is seeking a further six-year term, But his firm grip on power was shaken by an attempted coup on 8 June. This led to two days of fierce fighting in the capital before military units loyal to the government restored order. The authorities have arrested 129 serving and former soldiers, who are currently in detention awaiting trial for their alleged part in the rebellion.

    The polls open at 0700 GMT on Friday and close 12 hours later. The first official results from the election are expected on Monday. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes cast, a second round run-off between the two front runners will be held on 21 November.

    The opposition accused Ould Taya of rigging the presidential elections of 1992 and 1997 in his favour and have expressed fears that he will find ways to massage the results this time too.

    Ould Taya's pro-American government has refused to allow foreign observers to monitor the poll and has banned local opposition parties and civil society groups from forming a locally-based watchdog to guarantee fair play. A five-man observer team from the National Democratic Institute of the United States has been allowed into the country, but has not been given official accreditation.

    There was little immediate public reaction to Ould Haidalla's arrest in this desert city of sand-filled streets full of battered Mercedes cars. The election is taking place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when the faithful fast during daylight hours. Most people went home early to prepare for the evening meal, to be eaten after sunset.

    Besides Ould Haidalla, the main opposition candidates are Messoud Ould Boulkheir, a representative of the Harratin black Moorish community, which until recent years served as slaves to the light-skinned Bidan Moors, who have traditionally controlled power in Mauritania, and Ahmed Ould Abdallah, a half-brother of the country's first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, who died last month.

    All three have pledged to campaign for whoever emerges as the strongest challenger to Ould Taya, should the election go to a second round.

    "Taya had better commit massive fraud so that he can win in the first round, otherwise he will have no chance in the second," one opposition supporter told IRIN.

    But opposition leaders have dropped heavy hints that if Ould Taya rigs the poll again to keep himself in power, they will not take their defeat lying down. "Taya will have to choose between transparent, clean elections or civil disobedience," one of Ould Daddah's aides told IRIN as the election campaign ended with loud music in the streets on Wednesday night.

    While Ould Haidalla has toured this staunchly Muslim country calling for change, Ould Taya has also been on the stump defending the economic achievements of his government.

    "They will come in here and tell you I haven't done anything, but I built the roads they will use to come here," he told supporters at a rally near the northern town of Atar.

    Just over 1.1 million Mauritanians have registered vote in Friday's election at 2,800 polling stations across the country.
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