SHEIKH BEKAYE Associated Press Writer
June 8, 2003
Government forces crushed a coup attempt by the disgruntled military after two days of street battles in the capital, Mauritania’s leader said Monday.
President Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya, unseen by the public since the fighting began early Sunday, appeared before the nation in a brief speech broadcast from his presidential palace and thanked soldiers who remained loyal to him.
Military officials said earlier that coup forces had taken an armored division based in a southern suburb. “Time was necessary to destroy the division tank after tank,” Ould Taya said in Arabic. “The rebellion has ended.”
The president gave no casualty figures.
Gunshots and explosions, which had rocked Nouakchott since early Sunday, subsided Monday afternoon and there were no reports of fighting elsewhere. Government soldiers manned roadblocks in the city center, and police quelled looting that began with the fighting.
Even before Ould Taya’s speech, hundreds of his supporters spilled into the desert capital’s main boulevards, crying: “We have won, we have won.”
The uprising followed a government crackdown on Islamic activists. Mauritania’s government has a reputation of muzzling dissent, by censoring the media or by arresting opposition leaders.
“If the coup fails, it’s a catastrophe,” said one young man, Sid’Ahmed Ould Ali. “If it doesn’t fail, it’s still a catastrophe.”
Throughout Sunday, there was heavy fighting around the presidential palace and nearby radio and television station.
Military officials said Monday that most fighting happened near military bases and the presidential palace _ which was hit by at least one tank round, they said.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the coup attempt.
Annan “reiterates his firm condemnation of any attempt to change the government of any country by force or by any other unconstitutional means,” U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
The coup attempt was the biggest threat to Ould Taya’s government since he came to power in a military takeover in 1984. He was confirmed as president in 1992 and 1997 elections that were widely viewed as flawed.
The Arab satellite television station Al-Jazeera said the coup appeared to be led by army members angry about the government’s campaign against Islamic extremism.
Mauritania’s government has moved against Islamic activists since the U.S.-led Iraq war, initially to try to prevent any shows of support for Saddam Hussein.
Dozens of Islamic leaders were arrested last month for allegedly using mosques to recruit fighters. At least 32 were freed Sunday when rebel soldiers released prisoners from two jails, opposition officials said.
Army Chief of Staff Mohammed Lamine Ould N’Deyane was killed during the fighting, military sources said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Staff at the city’s main hospital said they had received the bodies of at least three soldiers and treated 16 others for gunshot wounds on Sunday. Many civilians were wounded.
Mauritania’s Arab-led government has tried to balance a strongly Islamic nation with a pro-Western foreign policy.
After a falling out with Saddam, Ould Taya traded an alliance with Iraq for improved relations with Israel. Mauritania is one of three Arab nations that has diplomatic relations with Israel.
Mauritania _ a Sahara Desert country of 2.5 million people _ is among the world’s 30 poorest nations.
Written By SHEIKH BEKAYE*