Mauritania junta frees ousted president


Mauritania's military junta today freed the country's ousted president Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi from house arrest, his supporters said.

The leaders of the August 6th coup which toppled Mr Abdallahi, the Western Saharan Islamic state's first democratically-elected president, said earlier this month they would release Abdallahi as part of negotiations to head off European Union sanctions.

But they have refused to restore Abdallahi to office, as the EU, the United States and other major donors have demanded.

Mr Abdallahi, who won multi-party elections last year, had been under house arrest since mid-November at his home town of Lemden, some 200 km (125 miles) south of the capital Nouakchott.

He was driven by security officers early on Sunday from Lemden to his family house in Nouakchott, which was guarded by soldiers, and was told he was being released from house arrest, supporters and witnesses said.

"The president has decided to return to Lemden," Cheikh Ibrahim Ould Bah, a member of the pro-Abdallahi National Front for the Defence of Democracy (FNDD) told Reuters, saying Abdallahi left immediately again for his hometown with friends.

There was no immediate public comment by the ruling military High Council of State headed by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who led the coup in the world's seventh biggest iron ore exporter, which also started producing oil in 2006.

On November 21st, the EU threatened individually targeted sanctions against Abdel Aziz and members of his military administration if they did not restore constitutional rule.

The EU says it will avoid sanctions that would hurt Mauritania's 3 million people, and continues to pay Nouakchott over $100 million a year for fishing rights, underpinning the state budget.

On Friday, the United States said it would axe trade benefits for Mauritania as of Jan. 1 in response to the coup. Washington, which has long regarded Mauritania as an ally in its war on terrorism against Islamic militant groups in the Sahara, has already cut back military and development aid since the coup and banned junta members from travelling to the US.