Jubilant mobs rushed the airport and lined the streets of the Mauritanian capital on Monday to greet 30 former dissidents returning from exile, days after the country’s new military rulers called a sweeping amnesty for those imprisoned or banished by ex-President Maaouya Ould Taya.
Countless flight delays did not deter the supporters, who walked or drove through the streets of Nouakchott to the blare of car horns until midnight. Police officers were posted throughout the airport and the city to keep order.
The former opposition leaders and rebel army officers are the first of scores expected to return to Mauritania in the coming days and weeks.
Among the arrivals were Mohamed Ould Cheikhna and Mohamed Ould Saleck, leading members of the “Knights of Change,” which allegedly carried out coup attempts in 2003 and 2004.
“It is very difficult to express in words the joy we feel,” Ould Saleck told IRIN at the Nouakchott airport. “I am here to participate in the reconstruction of our country.”
Col Ely Ould Mohammed Vall, leader of the ruling Military Council for Justice and Democracy (MCJD), on 2 September announced a pardon for those charged with political offences.
Vall said the MCJD was offering the pardon “in order to permit them to participate in the work of rebuilding the country in complete freedom.”
Since seizing power last month in a bloodless coup the junta has released over 100 political prisoners.
One of them, Saleh Ould Hanena, was at the airport to greet his fellow dissidents, with whom he lived in exile until his arrest during a clandestine return home in September 2004.
Ould Hanena, a military officer, had been sentenced to life imprisonment earlier this year for trying to overthrow Ould Taya several times during 2003 and 2004.
“This is a celebration and at the same time a first step toward dialogue,” he told IRIN. “We have remained united despite the distance.”
The occasion was one of reunion and celebration rather than a stage for political pronouncements. The returnees and newly freed prisoners gave no indication of their political intentions for Mauritania’s transition.
Mauritanian citizens similarly cheered the 3 August coup d’etat that ended two decades of rule under Ould Taya, who had survived several coup attempts during his reign. The junta has vowed a return to elected government, with presidential elections within two years.
Former dissident Ould Saleck told IRIN upon his return on Monday, “Change has taken place. We believe in the promises of the Military Council.”