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Archive for Monday, June 9, 2003

Coup attempt reported in Arab-led Mauritania

June 9, 2003

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— Mauritania's pro-Western leader battled a coup attempt Sunday, as small arms 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 both the army and air force.

The clashes subsided late Sunday 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 whereabouts 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 told The Associated Press.

Army Chief of Staff Mohammed Lamine Ould N'Deyane was killed during the fighting, military sources said on condition of anonymity. 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.

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 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.

There was heavy looting at the Education Ministry, state radio station and a number of downtown stores. But by late afternoon, police and national guards had deployed.

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 took 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.

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