Associated Press Writer
June 7, 2003
Mauritania’s pro-Western leader battled an apparent coup attempt Sunday, as gun and tank fire erupted near the presidential palace in the Arab-dominated west African nation.
The fighting followed a government crackdown on Islamic activists that started with the U.S.-led Iraq war.
President Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya’s whereabouts amid the clashes were not immediately known. At midafternoon, the Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera reported that coup forces were in Ould Taya’s presidential palace.
But a senior government official insisted authorities had the situation under control.
“There are some small groups fighting in parts of the city, but it is just a question of time,” until order is restored, the official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Residents reached by telephone in the capital, Nouakchott, said explosions started at 2 a.m. By midday, they could still hear gunfire and see tanks moving.
“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. “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 cannon fire with Kalashnikov-toting insurgents.
Staff at a city hospital said they had treated 10 people for gunshot wounds. They did not specify whether the victims were civilians or combatants.
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.
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.
Mauritania launched its crackdown initially to stem Islamic shows of support for Iraq. Last month, dozens of Islamic leaders were arrested for allegedly 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. After a bitter falling out with 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 came to power in a 1984 military coup and was declared president in 1992 and 1997 elections widely viewed as flawed. Mauritania _ a Sahara Desert country of 2.5 million people _ is among the world’s 30 poorest nations.
Written BySHEIKH BEKAYE