Potential Hot Spots: January 10, 2004


Drivers on the famous Paris-Dakar Rally where stopped at Mauritania's border by armed security force members, who demanded $65 from each vehicle to pass. While the decision to impose the passage fee upon the Paris-Dakar came from local customs officials in the far north, the national authorities  made it clear they didn't appreciate  such freelancing. This illustrates how life outside of the capital runs under rules that are centuries old. 

On January 5, Mauritania's attorney general called for the light sentences against former president Ould Haidalla and eight other coup plotters. They were accused of inciting people to support a June 8 attempt to topple the government, but the uprising was crushed after two days of fierce fighting. 

But instead of sentences of five to 20 years' hard labor, the former president was only given a five-year suspended prison term and fined. Eight of his 14 codefendants also found guilty were given equal or lesser suspended sentences. Six others were acquitted. In December, defense lawyers continued pressing the judge to release Ould Haidalla and his supporters for lack of evidence, since the state prosecutor failed to produce two key witnesses. Either Mauritania's courts are truly playing by the rules or influential people are sending President Taya a thinly veiled message. 

Ould Haidalla and his supporters were arrested shortly after Ould Taya won the November 7 election, under a variety of charges of plotting against the government in collusion with a foreign power (which the Mauritanian government named as Libya). They accuse Tripoli of contributing about $1 million towards Ould Haidalla's election campaign and have hinted that Libya was harboring coup ringleaders, which Libya promptly denied.

President Taya has ruled the deeply Islamic country with an iron hand for nearly 20 years and predictably is trying to send potential dissenters a clear message. Once a backer of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Taya has developed close ties with the United States and has controversially established full diplomatic relations with Israel (only the third Arab League nation to do so).

In addition to diplomatic niceties, Mauritania may take on new economic significance. On November 14, a consortium led by the Australian Woodside company and including Agip, Hardman Resources, Fusion, and Roc Oil announced it had discovered petroleum for the first time in Mauritania. The 'Tiof' bloc reportedly contains reserves of the same quality but greater than those at nearby Chinguetti (estimated at 140 million barrels) and Banda (more than 100 million barrels). - Adam Geibel 


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