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Coup Attempt Rattles Arab-Led Mauritania

SHEIKH BEKAYE June 8, 2003

Associated Press Writer

Heavy explosions shook the capital of this Arab-dominated west African nation for a second day Monday as Mauritania’s pro-Western leader battled a coup attempt.

The army chief was reported killed in the fighting, which followed a government crackdown on Islamic activists that started with the U.S.-led war in Iraq. It wasn’t clear if the army chief had supported the insurgents or the government.

Clashes between rebellious army units and loyalist forces subsided overnight but erupted again around 6 a.m. in the center of Nouakchott and near the international airport on the eastern outskirts of the desert capital.

As dawn broke, President Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya’s whereabouts remained unknown and it was not clear who controlled the city.

Coup forces claimed to have taken the presidential palace, state radio station and other key buildings. But government officials insisted authorities had the situation under control and the president 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 told The Associated Press late Sunday.

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 television station Al-Jazeera said it appeared to be lead by officers recently dismissed from the army and others angry about the government’s campaign against Islamic extremism.

Nouakchott residents heard heavy explosions throughout Sunday.

“I have decided to lock everyone inside, all members of my family, because we are too scared to go out,” said one man reached by telephone, too afraid to give his name. “We are hearing gunshots at this very moment.”

There was heavy fighting around the presidential palace and nearby radio station, where loyalist soldiers and paramilitary police traded gun and tank cannon fire with Kalashnikov-toting insurgents. Residents in the area said they could not distinguish between the two sides because they were in the same uniform.

There were also explosions near a military base in the southern part of the city, prompting frightened residents to flee their homes.

Army Chief of Staff Mohammed Lamine Ould N’Deyane was killed during the fighting, military sources said. The circumstances were not immediately clear.

Staff at the city’s main hospital said they had received the bodies of three soldiers and treated 16 others for gunshot wounds. Many civilians were also hurt in the fighting, they said.

Ambulances crisscrossed the city center, even as fighting raged. State radio and television were off the air, and the international airport was closed.

Mauritania’s government has cracked down on Islamic activists since the U.S.-led Iraq war, initially to try to prevent any Islamic shows of support for Iraq.

Dozens of Islamic leaders were arrested last month for allegedly using mosques to recruit young men as fighters.

Insurgents _ who appeared to include both army and air force members _ freed at least 32 Islamic activists from a state detention center, opposition officials said on condition of anonymity.

Mauritania’s Arab-led government has tried to balance a strongly Islamic nation with Westward looking foreign policy.

After a bitter falling out with ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Ould Taya traded a one-time alliance with Iraq for improved relations with Israel. Mauritania is one of only three Arab nations to hold diplomatic relations with Israel.

Ould Taya himself came to power in a 1984 military coup. He was confirmed as president in 1992 and 1997 elections that were widely viewed as flawed.

Mauritania _ a Sahara Desert country of 2.5 million people _ is among the world’s 30 poorest nations.



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