The government of Mauritania declared Saturday that Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, president for the last 19 years, had won reelection. But the top challenger, who was backed by Islamic hard-liners and liberal reformers in the North African nation, emerged from hiding and claimed that the vote was a fraud.
Taya's apparent victory seemed to ensure that Mauritania will remain a rare ally in North Africa of both Israel and the United States.
After all votes were tallied, the Interior Ministry declared Taya the first-round winner with 67% of Friday's vote. The results still have to be validated by the courts.
His strongest competitor among five challengers, Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla, trailed with 19%, the ministry said.
To avoid a runoff, Taya needed support from 50% of voters in the nation that straddles the Arab and African worlds on the edge of the Sahara. The country has never seen a peaceful and democratic transfer of power since independence from France in 1960; Taya seized control in 1984, overthrowing military dictator Haidalla.
Haidalla went into hiding as soon as polls closed Friday, fearing detention after security forces abruptly arrested him on election eve. He was quickly released, however, and emerged a day later to tell reporters that although he still feared arrest, "the captain can't abandon a sinking ship."
The opposition candidate gathered with two other challengers to denounce the vote as an "electoral masquerade" that they would challenge in Mauritania's highest court.
Haidalla campaign spokeswoman Hindou Gueye said: "The fraud was flagrant, and there has been intimidation for weeks."
Taya's regime rejected European Union election observers and was accused of closing election venues to both local and international monitors.
Security forces put up checkpoints around the presidential palace and other government buildings as the votes were counted. The election came six months after Taya withstood a coup attempt his administration blamed on Muslim hard-liners.
Taya called for calm, promising in a brief, nationally televised address that "the people will enjoy democracy and stability."
Nouakchott, a city of sand-colored low buildings and donkey carts, remained peaceful by nightfall Saturday. A handful of shop owners closed up, fearing violence.
"We're not against the president -- he's against us," insisted Hashem Diop, an unemployed black African in one of Noaukchott's poorer districts.
Like Arabs, black Africans make up 30% of Mauritania's 2.9 million people. Africans here are generally poorer, and they complain of discrimination by their lighter-skinned compatriots. Those of mixed-race make up the rest of the population.
Taya's administration shifted political alliances in the mid-1990s after it was isolated for supporting Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In 1999, Mauritania became one of only three countries in the Arab League to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.