August 3, 2005

Troops block Mauritania streets in coup attempt

By Ibrahima Sylla

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Members of Mauritania's presidential
guard took over state television and radio on Wednesday and
blocked streets in the capital Nouackchott in what a diplomat
said could be a coup attempt.

President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, who was out of the
country after attending the funeral of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd
in Riyadh on Tuesday, arrived in Niger's capital Niamey hours
after reports of the troop movements in Nouakchott emerged.

"We have heard that there has been a coup d'etat but we
don't know who's involved. We don't know whether it is
something that has succeeded or failed," Sid Ahmed Abeidna, the
British honorary consul in Nouakchott, told Reuters.

Witnesses said green-bereted members of Taya's guard had
earlier taken control of state television and radio. Gunfire
rang out briefly near the presidency building and the airport
was closed.

The French embassy in Nouakchott said it was monitoring the
situation in the former colony but declined to comment further.
The U.S. embassy said it had told its citizens to stay at home.

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

Shops in the sand-blanketed city were closed and taxis were
not stopping to pick up people trying to leave the town center.

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

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.


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.

The United States has been sending military experts to
train soldiers in Mauritania and other countries in the region
to combat militants thought to be operating in the Sahara.

U.S. European Command, which overseas U.S. military
operations in 91 countries and territories in Europe and most
of Africa, said it was monitoring the situation closely.

Analysts have warned that Mauritania's attempts to stifle
opposition groups by denouncing them as terrorists risks
backfiring by radicalising 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)