President Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Taya, who himself seized power in a coup two decades ago, had left the country for the funeral of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia. He arrived yesterday in nearby Niger.
Islamist leaders in Mauritania have staunchly opposed Mr Taya, criticising him for building close ties with Israel. He supported Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, but switched allegiances in the late 1990s, allying himself with the US.
The first exploitation of the vast offshore reserves of petroleum owned by the impoverished nation of three million is expected in the first quarter of 2006.
Trouble began at dawn yesterday, when presidential guard troops took control of the radio and television stations. Heavily armed troops were seen around the presidential palace. They blocked key roads and the international airport in Nouakchott was closed.
Cabinet ministers and army officials either could not be reached or refused to comment.
The army officers, speaking through the state-run news agency, identified themselves as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy.
"The armed forces and security forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered," it said. The junta said it would exercise power for up to two years to allow time to put in place "open and transparent" democratic institutions.
In Niger's capital, Niamey, Mr Taya refused comment. He held talks at the airport with the President, Mamadou Tandja, and later went to a villa in Niamey, where officials said he might stay for several days.
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