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Mauritanian Leader Discusses Oil's Curse

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NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) - The former police colonel who seized power in Africa's newest crude exporter says he believes Mauritania can avoid the corruption and violence that have accompanied oil wealth elsewhere on the continent.

Mauritania, which borders Mali, Senegal and Algeria, began pumping oil in February. Many are watching the impoverished northwest African nation -- 40 percent of its 3 million citizens live below the poverty line -- to see if it will be able to cope with the sudden wealth.

"Anything can be a curse. But oil can also be a blessing," Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall said in a wide-ranging interview on topics from illegal African migration to Europe to Mauritanians detained at the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay.

"For us it is going to be a blessing," Vall said of oil over tea in the presidential palace on Saturday in the capital, Nouakchott.

"We can avoid corruption because we have the true desire to do so," said Vall. "This isn't doublespeak for us."

The 53-year-old Vall took power in a bloodless coup in August but has refused the title of president, saying it should only be used for elected leaders of a country.

He said Mauritania plans to hold back some oil revenue from the yearly budget to build wealth for future generations.

He also promised to return Mauritania to democracy with elections next year. He reaffirmed in the interview that he will not run in March presidential elections, saying "nothing at all" could push him to enter the race.
His power grab, however, placed him on the opposite side of a trend toward multiparty elections across Africa.

Mauritanians, while applauding some newfound freedoms in their country, are waiting to see whether Vall delivers on his promises. Many coup leaders in other nations have vowed to turn over power, only to drag out their interim roles for years -- or renege entirely on their promises.

Vall also said Saturday that the United States should only try three Mauritanian citizens listed as Guantanamo Bay detainees if the men have broken American laws.

He said he did not know the specific accusations against Mohammad Lameen Mohammad, Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who were among more than 500 names on a Guantanamo detainee list released to the AP on Wednesday.

Vall said he was not asking for the trio's return to Mauritania for trial.
One of the three Mauritanians was handed over to American authorities in 2001 by Maaouya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya, the president toppled last year by forces loyal to Vall.

Ould Taya came to power in the 1980s through his own military takeover, then won elections in 2003 that the opposition said were fraudulent. He had grown increasingly unpopular because he imprisoned political opponents and Islamic leaders whom he called terrorists.

Mauritania is one of only three Arab League nations to have full ties with Israel -- established by Ould Taya in efforts to woo back the West after he sided with Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war.

Vall has vowed to keep open Mauritania's relationship with Israel.
"We've always been for the rights of the Palestinians, but it needs to be resolved by negotiations," Vall said. "Everyone knows Israel is there; you can't resolve the issues without talking to them."

Asked about Mauritania's role as a launching pad for illegal migrants to Europe, Vall said his country is working to close its borders.

The northern coast of Mauritania has recently become a hub for small fishing boats attempting the 600-mile ocean trip to Europe.

Vall said that while the international community should help Africa with problems such as migration and poverty, Africans must help themselves.
"We have to take on responsibility for our own future," he said.