NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) – A military junta overthrew Mauritania’s U.S.-allied president while he was abroad Wednesday, prompting celebrations in this oil-rich Islamic nation that looked increasingly to the West amid alleged threats from al-Qaida linked militants.

The junta promised to yield to democratic rule within two years, but African leaders and the United States were quick to condemn the coup, declaring that the days of authoritarianism and military rule must end across the continent.

President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya, who himself seized power in a 1984 coup and dealt ruthlessly with his opponents, was out of the country when presidential guardsmen cut broadcasts from the national radio and television stations at dawn and seized a building housing the army chief of staff headquarters.

Later in the day, the junta named national police chief Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall as the country’s new leader.

Vall, 55, was considered a confident of Taya and developed a reputation of calmness and reserve while serving as chief since 1987.

The junta statement identified Vall as “president” of the military council that seized power. It named 16 other army officers, nearly all colonels, who would rule the country.

Taya, who had allied his overwhelmingly Muslim nation with the United States in the war on terrorism, refused comment after arriving Wednesday in nearby Niger from Saudi Arabia, where he attended King Fahd’s funeral.

The State Department joined the African Union in calling for the restoration of the government.

“We call for a peaceful return for order under the constitution and the established government of President Taya,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in Washington, adding that the United States was reaching out and talking to officials from the government.

He also said the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott was open but Americans were advised to stay home and take precautions to ensure their safety. There are 200 to 300 Americans in the desert nation, mostly aid workers and members of the Peace Corps, according to U.S. officials.

The U.S. military has sent special operations troops to train Mauritania’s army, most recently in June as part of efforts to deny terrorists sanctuary in the under-policed Sahara desert region.

The junta identified itself in a statement on the state-run news agency as the Military Council for Justice and Democracy.

“The armed forces have unanimously decided to put an end to the totalitarian practices of the deposed regime under which our people have suffered much over the last several years,” the statement 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.

Oil recently was discovered in reserves offshore, and Mauritania is expected to begin pumping crude for the first time early next year, but industry analysts said the coup was unlikely to significantly affect global oil prices.

“With the markets being so edgy, the news may potentially have some impact but I doubt it,” said energy analyst Orrin Middleton of Barclays Capital in London.

This sparsely populated nation on the northwestern edge of the Sahara had been strictly controlled by Taya, who tried to legitimize his rule in the 1990s through elections the opposition says were fraudulent.

Islamic leaders in the impoverished nation of 3 million have led the opposition to Taya, criticizing him for building close ties with Israel. Mauritania opened full diplomatic relations with Israel six years ago.

The Israeli Embassy in Mauritania was operating normally, although security had been tightened, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in Israel.

At one point, a short burst of automatic gunfire was heard near the presidential palace, where three anti-aircraft truck batteries were set up at midmorning. No casualties were reported.

After the coup was announced, hundreds of people celebrated in the city center, saluting soldiers guarding the presidential palace, clapping and singing slogans in Arabic against Taya.

“It’s the end of a long period of oppression and injustice,” civil servant Fidi Kane said. “We are very delighted with this change of regime.”

State television and radio were back on air by Wednesday afternoon, with journalists reading the junta’s statement repeatedly, interspersed with Quranic readings – normal in the Islamic nation.

Taya had survived several coup attempts, including one in 2003 that led to several days of street fighting in the capital.

After that, he jailed scores of members of Muslim fundamentalist groups, and the army accused of plotting to overthrow him. His government also has accused opponents of training with al-Qaida linked insurgents in Algeria.

A June 4 border raid on a remote Mauritanian army post by al-Qaida-linked insurgents sparked a gunbattle that killed 15 Mauritanian troops and nine attackers. Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat claimed responsibility, saying the attack was “in revenge for our brothers who were arrested in the last round of detentions in Mauritania.”

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