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Soldiers in Mauritania stage coup

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Taya was out of the country attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.

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(CNN) -- The Mauritanian armed forces have taken advantage of the absence of the country's president to seize power, announcing that Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall would be the nation's new leader, according to a statement released by the state new agency.

Other military officers would be in a new Military Council for Justice and Democracy, that council said in the statement released Wednesday.

The coup occurred when President Maaouya Taya was out of the country attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd. The president is reportedly now in Niger's capital, Niamey, on his way back from Riyadh.

"The armed forces have decided to put an end to the totalitarian rule and take over power, and we promise to rule transparently and democratically," the Military Council statement said.

There was no immediate word from Taya, who came to power in a 1984 coup that toppled President Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidallah.

The council also said it would rule the north African nation for a maximum of two years and "will respect all treaties that were signed or agreed upon already."

After the adoption of a new constitution and the legalization of opposition parties in 1991, Taya won re-election in both 1997 and 2003, although election observers considered both votes flawed.

Mauritanian television, which had been off the air all morning Wednesday, began broadcasting again with the military statement, read by a woman wearing a Muslim headdress, the hijab.

"The armed forces and security forces have unanimously decided to put a definitive end to the totalitarian acts in the past few years of the defunct regime under which our people have suffered greatly in the last few years," the statement said, as translated by CNN.

The U.S. State Department Wednesday condemned the coup and called for a "peaceful return for order under the constitution and the established government of President Taya."

"He is the established constitutional president of Mauritania," spokesman Tom Casey said, adding the United States would continue to deal with Taya as the legitimate head of Mauritania and did not see the need for additional constitutional action.

The U.S. Embassy in Mauritania sent out a warning to U.S. citizens in the country, advising them to stay at home and take extra security precautions.

Taya's government survived a military coup attempt in June 2003 and, according to government claims, two more in August and September 2004. Prior to 2003, Taya had enjoyed the strong support of the military.

Taya's opponents have been most vocal in opposition to his ties to the United States and to Israel -- under Taya, Mauritania became only the third Islamic nation with formal ties to the Jewish state, a move that also drew criticism from the League of Arab Nations.

Further displeasure with his rule has stemmed from continuing suppression of opposition parties and occasional military purges.

Mauritania also stands to join the oil-economy countries in 2006, when offshore oil discoveries start generating revenues for the poor and thinly populated country.

-- CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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