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Mauritanians vote on president after tense run-up
( 2003-11-07 09:33) (Agencies)

Mauritania's main opposition candidate in Friday's presidential election, who was briefly detained by police on the eve of the poll, said he would not have victory snatched away by fraud.

Mauritania's President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya is facing his toughest electoral test after 19 years in power, with five challengers gunning to remove him from office. Diplomats say he may be forced to contest a tense second round.

Taya has ruled the former French colony with an iron fist since he ousted his main challenger, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, from the presidency in 1984. Power has never changed hands through the ballot box since independence in 1960.

Police grabbed Haidalla at his home on Thursday and the state prosecutor said he was suspected of plotting to take power by force again, rather than through the democratic process.

Released late on Thursday with no charge, the former military ruler issued a warning ahead of polling, which starts on Friday at 7 a.m. (2 a.m. EST).

"If the election is regular, I will be the first to recognize that I've lost, if I've lost, but I will not let them steal my victory," he told Reuters. He did not elaborate.

Mauritania is a poor country straddling black and Arab Africa with little more than 500 miles of paved roads. But many hope the discovery of offshore oil will enrich its 2.9 million inhabitants.

Taya angered some Arabs at home after he performed a stark diplomatic about-turn - shifting from support for former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to establishing full relations with Israel and moving close to the United States.

Five months ago, renegade soldiers tried to depose Taya but the uprising was swiftly crushed and the president clamped down on the Islamic radicals he blamed for the attempted putsch.

For the election, Haidalla, who first seized power for himself by force in 1980, has assembled a broad coalition of backers ranging from reformist liberals to Islamic radicals.

Friday's poll has been sullied by allegations of foul play and the opposition, which includes a descendant of slaves and the first woman to run for president in the Islamic republic, has accused Taya of rigging past elections.

"My message to my people is to go to the polls in large numbers and make sure there is no fraud," Haidalla said.

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