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Mauritania junta frees jailed Islamists, names PM

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20050807/wl_nm/mauritania_dc Mauritania junta frees jailed Islamists, names PM By Nick Tattersall 24 minutes ago NOUAKCHOTT
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 7 12:32 PM
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20050807/wl_nm/mauritania_dc

      Mauritania junta frees jailed Islamists, names PM

      By Nick Tattersall 24 minutes ago

      NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritania's new army rulers
      ordered the release on Sunday of around 20 Islamist
      activists who had been jailed by ousted President
      Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya for their alleged links
      with a group allied to al Qaeda.

      In a move designed to reassure political parties, the
      junta also appointed a civilian prime minister, Sidi
      Mohamed Ould Boubacar, to head a caretaker government.

      A former premier under Taya, Ould Boubacar became
      Mauritania's ambassador to France after falling out of
      grace and is seen as a consensus name who may also
      help soothe international concerns about the military
      takeover.

      Taya, who had ruled with an authoritarian style since
      1984, was overthrown in a bloodless coup by a group of
      officers on Wednesday while out of the country.

      The detainees freed on Sunday were part of a group of
      some 60 people arrested by security forces since April
      in a clampdown on Islamist activists and politicians
      which critics say was an excuse to stifle dissent.

      "This is a new era, a page has been turned," said
      Moctar Ould Mohamed Moussa, one of the released
      prisoners, as he walked out of the main civilian
      prison in the capital Nouakchott to be met by cheering
      relatives.

      Hundreds of jubilant people honked their car horns
      outside the two-storey concrete building.

      The United States, France and the United Nations have
      all condemned the coup. The African Union has
      suspended Mauritania.

      But in Nouakchott and elsewhere in the country,
      thousands of people have taken to the streets in
      celebration.

      On Sunday, even Taya's own party said it fully backed
      the program outlined by the military council -- a
      constitutional referendum within a year followed by
      parliamentary elections.

      DIPLOMATIC SHIFT

      Initially an ally of former Iraqi president
      Saddam Hussein, Taya had angered many Arabs in his
      country by moving it closer to Israel -- Mauritania is
      one of only three Arab League members to have
      diplomatic ties with the Jewish state -- and
      Washington.

      He also turned Mauritania, which straddles black and
      Arab Africa, into one of the most repressive countries
      toward Islamist movements, especially after narrowly
      surviving a coup attempt in June 2003.

      The detained activists had been accused by Taya's
      government of colluding with the Algerian-based
      Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a
      movement allied to al Qaeda.

      But many Mauritanian Arabs say Taya overstated the
      Islamist threat to justify a crackdown on opponents
      and curry favor with the United States -- whose
      military trained his army to fight radical militants
      thought to be active in the Sahara desert. "The
      Islamists are the majority in Mauritania. They do not
      preach violence. The former president rounded them as
      extremists so as to win support from the West," said
      Yacoub Ould Moine, a university maths professor who
      was standing outside the prison.

      A source close to the military junta told Reuters half
      a dozen prisoners would stay in jail after they
      admitted ties to the GSPC. The cases of other
      detainees were being reviewed.

      Opposition leaders said the new prime minister had
      once been one of Taya's men, but should be given the
      benefit of the doubt.

      "He is someone from the old regime but he is someone
      who wants change," Mohamed Ould Maouloud, leader of a
      moderate opposition party, told Reuters.

      "We will judge him by his work," he said.

      (additional reporting by Ibrahima Sylla)
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