, NOUAKCHOTT, June 19- Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who is seeking a new term in a vote Saturday, has become known for his iron rule and a relentless campaign against Al Qaeda extremists.
The former general, 57, seized power in the largely desert northwest African nation in a 2008 coup, ousting Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, whom he had served as presidential chief of staff.
A quiet career soldier, Abdel Aziz criticised his predecessor for being too soft on Islamist extremists behind attacks and kidnappings. He soon won renown and Western support for decisive action against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In 2009, Abdel Aziz won a first presidential election, but the main opposition never recognised his victory, alleging massive fraud in the poll. Most of his foes are boycotting Saturday’s vote.
Mauritania, a mainly Muslim republic on the Atlantic coast of the western Sahara, is viewed as strategically important by the West in the fight against Al Qaeda linked groups across the region.
Abdel Aziz has boosted army numbers and organised assaults on AQIM camps in neighbouring Mali. He led a military campaign from 2010 to 2011, setting up bases in Mali’s Timbuktu region for joint operations with the Malian army.
The primary aim, to end extremist raids and abductions in Mauritania with preemptive strikes, had some successes. Plots were foiled and the kidnapping of foreigners was all but halted.
The president, who nowadays prefers a suit and tie to military uniform, has himself reportedly been the target of several failed assassination bids by AQIM.
In 2012, Abdel Aziz was shot in the abdomen while in his car. State radio initially reported an attempt on his life, but the government later called the incident a “mistake” by an army unit that did not recognise the convoy. The president spent some weeks in France to recover.
More recently, he was a founding member and chairman of the “G5 of the Sahel” a group comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, which was established in February to tackle security issues on common borders.
As acting president of the African Union (AU), Abdel Aziz wants to send a force to Ivory Coast to help stabilise a country recovering from civil warfare.
– ‘Despotic military rule’ –
He has also declared himself ready to contribute to a planned UN force in the Central African Republic, gripped by conflict which has taken on a dangerous inter-religious nature.
Abdel Aziz was born in 1956 in Akjoujt, north of the capital Nouakchott, into a tribe of marabouts or Islamic holy men.
He attended the royal military academy in Meknes, Morocco, before joining Mauritania’s army.
He helped set up the presidential guard in the 1990s, the prestigious battalion instrumental in overthrowing president Maaouiya Ould Taya in 2005, after 21 years in power.
Abdel Aziz became part of a military regime that governed Mauritania between 2005 and 2007, until the country’s first presidential election gave power to civilians.
The poll was hailed by the international community as a model for African democracy, but the result was soon overturned by Abdel Aziz’s bloodless coup.
The powerful soldier ousted Abdallahi shortly after the elected leader sought to replace him as head of the presidential guard, apparently to curb his political influence.
Abdel Aziz’s regime has been relatively stable, but opposition leaders protest against “despotic military rule”, including crackdowns on demonstrations as the Arab Spring rocked the Middle East and north Africa.
The opposition Forum for Democracy and Unity (FNDU) accuses the president of organising an “electoral mascarade” on Saturday and urges citizens to boycott the vote.
The president faces four challengers Including an anti slavery campaigner and Mauritania’s second ever female presidential hopeful but he is tipped as an easy favourite.