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Polls close after first post-coup elections

3 min

Mauritania held presidential elections on Saturday, nearly one year after the military overthrew its first elected president. Coup leader General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is among the favourites, with nine candidates in the running.


AFP - Polls closed Saturday in Mauritanian presidential elections nearly a year after the overthrow of the country's first elected president, with the coup leader confident of outright victory.

Polling stations began to close at 1900 GMT, unless voters were still waiting to cast their ballots, and counting at those stations had begun, an AFP journalist witnessed. Initial results were expected on Monday.

Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who formally ceded control as head of the ruling junta in April and resigned from the army in order to contest the election as the "candidate of the poor," said his election would usher in "change for a prosperous Mauritania."

But one opposition candidate, Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, who overthrew dictator Maaouiya Ould Taya in 2005 and headed a junta for two years before handing over to a civilian government, claimed there has been massive fraud.

Ould Abdel Aziz, who toppled president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in the 6 August, 2008 coup, is one of nine candidates running in the election designed to restore constitutional democracy to the northwestern African country.

Earlier in the capital Nouakchott, long lines were seen queuing at polling stations guarded by military and police.

While voters did not always reveal their choices, many said they were seeking "change" and an end to a cycle of coups and instability in the north African country.

Hours before the polls opened, shooting broke out late Friday in Nouakchott between gunmen and police. Witnesses said two men were arrested and one escaped in a vehicle.

"There were two young Mauritanians of whom one had an explosives belt around his body that he did not detonate," added a police source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to the head of state security, the duo were part of a group of four suspected Islamist militants, all now in custody, who murdered an American teacher in an attack claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the same district on June 23.

Mohamed Lemine Ould Ahmed, whose service is part of the interior ministry, told a press conference Saturday that "the two people arrested Friday night were the killers of the American, Christopher Leggett."

The ex-junta chief's biggest challengers are Ahmed Ould Daddah, head of the main opposition party, the Rally of Democratic Forces, parliamentary speaker Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, of the National Front for the Defence of Democracy, and Jemil Ould Mansour, leader of the Islamist party Tewassoul.

The main candidates have attempted to broaden their support base with talk of real change, economic and social progress and development in the largely arid but potentially oil-rich nation twice the size of France on the southwestern side of the Sahara.

Some 1.2 million of the nation's three million people are eligible to vote in the polls which were being monitored by international observers from the African Union, the Arab League and the association of Francophone countries.

"I am sure we will get through in the first round," Ould Abdel Aziz said after voting near the presidential palace. "It will be the victory of change for a properous Mauritania, worthy of its independence."

Ould Boulkheir also called for the country to break from its tradition of military rule and take a "new path of democracy, unity and solidarity."

But Ould Valls claimed that there had been reported widespread electoral fraud, including buying of votes in whole villages in the interior.

"We will be informing the observers and the relevant authorities when we have evidence," he told journalists.

After a lacklustre campaign, observers believe that no candidate is strong enough to emerge alone from the first round and that a second run-off vote is likely on August 1.

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