By Sheikh Bekaye The Associated Press
NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Mauritaniennes pro-Western leader battled a coup attempt yesterday, as small-weapons and tank fire erupted near the presidential palace in the Arab-dominated West African nation.
The army chief was reported killed in the fighting, which followed a government crackdown on Islamic activists that started with the U.S.-led Iraq war. The insurgents appeared to include members of the military.
The clashes subsided last night, but it was unclear who controlled the capital. Coup forces claimed to have seized the presidential palace, state radio station and other key buildings, but the government said it had the situation under control.
The location of President Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya remained unknown. Officials said he was directing efforts to restore order from a secure location.
“Most of the rebels have been arrested and many others have surrendered to loyalist forces,” Communications Minister Hamoud Ould M’hamed said.
Residents reached by telephone in Nouakchott said explosions started at 2 a.m. By midday, they could still hear gunfire and see tanks.
“I have decided to lock everyone inside, all members of my family, because we are too scared to go out,” said one man, who asked not to be identified.
There was heavy fighting around the presidential palace and a nearby radio station, where loyalist soldiers and paramilitary police traded gun and cannon fire with assault-rifle-toting insurgents.
There also were heavy explosions near a military base in the southern part of the city, prompting frightened residents to flee.
Army Chief of Staff Mohammed Lamine Ould N’Deyane was killed during the fighting, military sources said on condition of anonymity.
Workers at the city’s main hospital said they had received the bodies of three soldiers and treated 16 for gunshot wounds. Many civilians also were hurt, they said.
State radio and television were off the air, and the international airport was closed.
In neighboring Morocco, the state-run news agency said the coup attempt was the work of armored units within Mauritania’s military.
The Arab satellite-TV station Al-Jazeera said it appeared to be led by officers recently dismissed from the army and others angry about the government’s campaign against Islamic extremism.
Insurgents freed at least 32 Islamic activists from a state detention center, opposition officials said, on condition of anonymity. Prisoners also were released from the main jail, which houses common criminals.
Mauritania began its crackdown initially to stem Islamic shows of support for Iraq. Last month, dozens of Islamic leaders were arrested for reportedly using mosques to recruit young men as fighters.
The country’s Arab-led government has tried to balance a strongly Islamic nation with westward-looking foreign policy. The Sahara Desert country of 2.5 million people is one of only three Arab nations to hold diplomatic relations with Israel