Mauritania became the latest African country to benefit from third-generation (3G) mobile phone services on Thursday as its newest provider Chinguitel went live, officials said.

Chinguitel, majority owned by Sudan's national telecoms company Sudatel, covers 4,000 km (2,485 miles) of main routes spreading through Mauritania, a mostly desert nation straddling black and Arab West Africa on the western edge of the Sahara.

Chinguitel has paid more than 27 billion ouguiya ($105 million) and signed agreements to ensure mobile coverage of several towns across the country and contribute to promoting access to information technology, Technology Minister Oumar Ould Yali said.

With fixed-line telecoms infrastructure scarce in many parts of Africa, such as rural Mauritania, a fall in the cost of mobile handsets and the price of calls has sparked a boom across the world's poorest continent.

Two decades ago, 85 percent of Mauritania's population was nomadic. Wealthier families who have settled in the capital Nouakchott often keep a traditional khaima -- desert tent -- in the courtyard of their homes.

Although steeped in tradition, men and women walking the sandswept streets in flowing robes and headscarves have been fast to adapt to new phone technology.

Nouakchott's mobile market, a haphazard collection of tin shacks, is one of the best-stocked in West Africa with the latest Nokia, Motorola and Siemens handsets and accessories imported from Europe.

Industry executives and analysts expect the West African market to double by 2011 to more than 100 million subscribers.

Mauritania, currently served by two mobile providers -- Mattel, partly held by Tunisian businessmen, and Mauritel, partly owned by Maroc Telecom -- had 600,000 subscribers in 2005 among a population of some 3 million.

Chinguitel brings 3G services -- which can include broadband wireless data and high-speed mobile internet access -- to the Islamic Republic for the first time.