NOUAKCHOTT - A French minister has dropped plans to visit Mauritania this weekend after the ruling junta refused to free the deposed president from house arrest, a French official said on Friday.
France, Mauritania's former colonial power and current holder of the European Union presidency, has led EU mediation after the Aug. 6 coup. It said on Monday the EU might impose sanctions if constitutional order was not restored in a month.
French Secretary of State for Cooperation Alain Joyandet had proposed visiting the Saharan Islamic state on Saturday on his way back to Paris from nearby Burkina Faso, but an official in Joyandet's delegation said the plan had been abandoned.
Joyandet's trip was conceived as part of efforts to try to break the diplomatic deadlock between Mauritania and its major Western donors that resulted from the coup. But his abandoning the visit suggested ties would remain cool for the time being.
"We will not be coming to Mauritania. The conditions given to the junta at the end of consultations in Paris have not been met, those being a dialogue and to meet President Abdallahi in complete liberty," said the official, who declined to be named.
Military chiefs led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz overthrew President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, the iron ore mining nation's first freely-elected leader, when he tried to sack them during a power struggle with parliament.
Opponents accused Abdallahi of overstepping his authority as president and failing to tackle pressing problems like surging food prices and al Qaeda attacks. The military junta has kept him under house arrest since the coup.
The EU wants Mauritania to bow to international demands for Abdallahi to be released and restored to power.
At the talks earlier this week in Paris, Mauritanian Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf had told Joyandet he would be able to meet Abdallahi, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said at the time.
"It is in order to meet him -- but not to meet him in prison," Chevallier had said on Tuesday. "We want the president to be freed. It's hard to imagine a ministerial-level visit to a country where the legitimate president is still imprisoned."
Western donors have moved to isolate the military junta. The United States, France and the World Bank have all cut some aid, Washington has slapped a U.S. travel ban on junta members and the African Union has suspended Mauritania.
But a significant proportion of Mauritania's political elite have thrown their weight behind the coup leaders.
Mohamed Aly Cherif, a member of parliament who supports the junta, played down the importance of Joyandet's decision.
"We hope he will come soon. It's sure to be a question of timing. France is important for us, and you should not read too much into this development," he told Reuters.
The EU dismissed proposals from the junta's delegation to the Paris talks as "fundamentally unconstitutional" and said if there was no progress within a month the EU would abandon consultations and take "appropriate measures".