Ministers in Mauritania earn the equivalent of $3,500 a month while the average civil servants' salary does not exceed $260 a month.

Last week the government announced a $112m budget deficit, of which more than half is due to a drop in petroleum receipts in 2007.

Mauritania became Africa's newest oil producer last year when it began operating its Chinguetti oilfields, 80km off the capital Nouakchott.

But oil production is currently only 20,000 barrels per day, compared to the originally anticipated 75,000 barrels. Output has dropped from 30,000 barrels per day last year.

The current production deficit has been attributed to a "technical problem" related to the siting of rigs which should be rectified this year, Zeine Ould Zeidane, the prime minister, said last week.

The vast country in northwest Africa is one of the 25 most poverty stricken countries in the world, according to UN rankings.