NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — The general who masterminded Africa's latest coup appeared in public for the first time Thursday, leading a triumphal march on the streets of Mauritania's capital and declaring he is "determined to save democracy" in the Islamic nation.
Elsewhere in sand-swept Nouakchott, police fired tear gas at protesters opposed to the change of power a day earlier that put Gen. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in control.
The coup has returned military rule to the desert country that 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 President Sidi Cheikh Ould Abdallahi emerge as victor after a two-year transition to civilian rule began with the army's 2005 ouster of a dictator.
"It's the army that brought an end to dictatorship in 2005. And today it's once again she that brings an end to dictatorship, to nepotism, to chaos and disorder," Aziz told the throngs of people who held up giant posters of him and chanted slogans like "Yes to the coup" and "We support the military."
On Wednesday, military officers loyal to Aziz stormed the president's office and took Abdallahi prisoner, showing real power still lies with the army and not the ballot box.
In an official statement late Thursday, Aziz reiterated that elections will be held "as soon as possible." Until then, he said, the country will be ruled by an 11-member "state council" made up of top military officers headed by him.
Aziz assured Mauritanians that the military will not obstruct Parliament and that personal liberties will be respected. The council will meet with all political parties to move the nation toward elections, he said.
The moves appeared aimed in part at damping international criticism of the coup, which has widely been condemned.
The United States suspended millions of dollars in military and development assistance, as well as a multimillion-dollar Millennium Challenge Corp. program. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told reporters Thursday that $4.9-million in food aid would continue.
The toppled president had not been heard or seen since he was put under house arrest Wednesday.