NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) – Mauritania’s prime minister was released Monday as junta leaders bowed to international pressure after a coup that prompted the U.S. to cut off more than $20 million in aid.

But the junta was still holding the president and said it had no immediate plans to release him, indicating that although the military is willing to make some conciliatory gestures, power remains firmly in their hands. Monday’s announcement said the army-led “state council” had freed Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waqef and three other key allies of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

The release followed behind-the-scenes lobbying by the ambassadors of the United States, France, Germany and Spain who met with the coup leader late Sunday, according to a diplomat who asked not to be quoted by name.

France has frozen aid to Mauritania and the European Union also has threatened to cut off aid. The African Union suspended Mauritania from the 53-nation body because of the military takeover.

The newly freed prime minister vowed that the Mauritanians would not accept the coup. Speaking to several thousands supporters at a rally a few hours after his release, Waqef urged them to keep fighting to restore the constitution.

Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz launched the coup one hour after the president fired the country’s top four generals – including Aziz – last Wednesday. The firing came after an increasingly bitter standoff between the president and the army.

Mauritania, a country of just 3 million people, is on the southern edge of the Sahara desert that bridges the Arab world with sub-Saharan Africa.

The country held historic elections just last year, its first free and fair ballot in more than 20 years. Mauritania won international praise for that vote, which saw Abdallahi emerge as victor after a two-year transition to civilian rule begun with the army’s 2005 ouster of a dictator.

AP-ES-08-11-08 1805EDT

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