August 3, 2005

Gunfire heard as soldiers surround Mauritania radio

By Ibrahima Sylla

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Gunfire rang out near the presidency
building in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott on Wednesday after
soldiers surrounded state radio and blocked off streets in the
city, a witness said.

President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya was out of the
country after attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd
in Riyadh on Tuesday.

"I heard a burst of gunfire near the presidency. I saw
scared people running away. Civil servants have all left their
offices," the Reuters witness said. He said state radio had
been off air since the early morning.

The French embassy in Nouakchott said it was monitoring the
situation in the former colony but declined to make any further

A second Reuters witness on the border with Senegal said
border guards were preventing people from leaving the country.

Dissident soldiers came close to toppling Taya in June 2003
during two days of street fighting in Nouakchott before
loyalist forces regained control. The government says it foiled
two more coup attempts in 2004.

"All the army is in the streets. It's blocking the roads to
the presidency and the main routes through town," a civil
servant who lives near the presidency building told Reuters.

"I went to my office but was told to go home, that there
would be no work today," he said.

Shops were closed and taxis were not stopping to pick up
those trying to leave the center of town.

President Taya seized power in a 1984 coup. He has angered
many Arabs in the country, which straddles black and Arab
Africa, by shifting support from former Iraqi President Saddam
Hussein to Israel and Washington in the 1990s.

Mauritania -- which hopes to start pumping oil early next
year -- is one of only three Arab League member states that
have established diplomatic ties with Israel.

It is also one of the most repressive countries in the
region toward Islamist movements, analysts say.

Police have arrested scores of Islamic opposition leaders
and activists since April, accusing them of colluding with the
Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC),
a movement allied to al Qaeda.

In May, security forces searched mosques around the
capital, seizing Koranic texts and arresting mosque officials.

Analysts have warned that Mauritania's attempts to stifle
opposition groups by denouncing them as terrorists risks
backfiring by radicalizing moderate Islamists.

Fifteen Mauritanian soldiers were killed in a dawn raid on
a remote outpost near the Algerian border in June, an attack
which the government blamed on the GSPC.

(Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar)