NOUAKCHOTT - Mauritanian President Maaouyia Ould Taya has been ousted and a military junta will rule in his place for no more than two years, a statement by the coup leadership said Wednesday.
"The military and the security forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the regime from which our people have suffered so much in the last years," the statement quoted by the Mauritanian news agency said.
"These practices have put the country on a dangerous course. For this reason, the military and security forces have decided to put in place a Military Council for Justice and Democracy."
The unidentified coup leaders pledged to "establish favourable conditions for an open and transparent democratic system on which civil society and political players will be able to give their opinions freely."
"The military and security forces do not intend to hold power for longer than a period of two years, which is considered essential to prepare and establish true democratic institutions," the statement said.
Finally, the new ruling council pledged to respect all international treaties and conventions already ratified by Mauritania.
Earlier Wednesday, troops led by the presidential guard took over key buildings in Nouakchott, including the military headquarters, the state radio and television offices, the presidential palace and ministries.
They acted while Ould Taya was in Saudi Arabia for the funeral of King Fahd. He was later reported to have landed in Niamey, capital of Niger.
In June 2003 a bloody uprising failed to unseat Ould Taya, and was followed in August and September of last year by two more alleged coup attempts.
Ould Taya, who seized power himself in a bloodless coup in 1984, is a strong ally of the United States at the head of the northwest African country, which sits on an estimated one billion barrels of oil and 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas.
He was elected president first in 1992, again in 1997 and for a third time in November last year in an exercise condemned as a "masquerade" by the opposition.
His government recently cracked down on Islamist radicals, accusing them of links to terrorism and extremist groups in neighbouring Algeria.
In May the authoritative International Crisis Group said Nouakchott had seized on the US-led struggle against terrorism as a way to legitimize its denial of democratic rights.
In a follow-up to a March report that called Washington's militaristic approach to the terror challenge in northwest Africa "counterproductive", the Brussels-based think tank said the demonization of Islamists in mostly Muslim Mauritania could be a "very costly mistake".
In February a court condemned 84 convicted putschists and acquitted more than 100 other defendants, including former president Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, ousted in 1984 by Ould Taya.
The 2003 coup attempt collapsed after a 36-hour gunbattle with loyalist soldiers at a military barracks near Nouakchott.
Its mastermind Saleh Ould Henenna, a former army major, told his trial that the country's deep racial and ethnic divisions were the impetus behind his bid to oust Ould Taya, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1984.
He called for "a political act of salvation for the Mauritanian people."
Life sentences were imposed in absentia on Mohamed Ould Salek and Mohamed Ould Cheikhna, the founder of an exiled band of renegade military officers known since June 2003 as Knights of Change.
Mauritania is one of just three Arab countries with diplomatic links with Israel, and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was greeted by anti-Israel graffiti and protests when he visited in May.
Israel has expressed hope that Mauritania might serve as a "bridge" between it and the Arab world and encourage other Arab nations to begin diplomatic relations.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas also visited Nouakchott a month ago.