June 2, 2006

Mauritania detains suspected Islamists: sources

By Ibrahima Sylla

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Mauritanian security services have
rounded up dozens of suspected members and supporters of an al
Qaeda-linked Islamic rebel group who were plotting attacks,
security sources said on Friday.

At least two of the detainees were suspected of involvement
in a June 2005 raid on a remote military post which killed 15
Mauritanian soldiers while another was accused of belonging to
an al Qaeda cell in Barcelona, Spain, the sources said.

The arrests were made during a manhunt over the past month
for three suspected members of the Algerian-based militant
Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) who escaped from
a jail in Mauritania's capital Nouakchott on April 27.

"They were planning to carry out actions," one source said,
without giving further details.

Mauritanian newspaper El Alam said on Friday that three
people arrested this week had confessed to working for the
GSPC. One of them admitted to taking part in the 2004 Madrid
bombings which killed nearly 200 people, and the 1998 bombings
of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which killed more than

"The three Mauritanians held have confessed that they were
under the orders of (senior GSPC member) Mokhtar Belmokhtar,
and that one of them had participated in the Madrid bombings
and in the attack against the U.S. embassy in Nairobi," El Alam

The newspaper said the group had been planning to kidnap
foreigners -- a tactic favored by the GSPC in the area -- and
attack financial institutions.

Mauritanian government officials could not be reached for
immediate comment on Friday, which is the first day of the
weekend in the Islamic Republic.


The GSPC and its al Qaeda allies have been increasingly
active in Mauritania and other countries in the arid Sahel
region fringing the Sahara, recruiting members, raising funds
and planning attacks, security officials say.

"We are also quite certain there has been contact between
al Qaeda operatives that have been sent to the region and GSPC
operatives active in the region," a U.S. counterterrorism
official said.

"Some of these people have been involved in operational
planning for terrorist acts that have not taken place but were
preempted due to good work by us and our foreign partners," the
U.S. official added.

Mauritania's security forces have rounded up dozens of
suspected Islamist militants in recent years.

A military junta released many of them after the overthrow
of President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya in a bloodless coup
last August. It has pledged to remain an ally in the U.S.-led
struggle against terrorism, keeping a number of al Qaeda
suspects in detention.

Prime Minister Sidi Mohamed Boubacar said on Thursday the
country's anti-terrorism operations were producing encouraging
results, but he declined to give details.

"The security forces are vigilant ... they are
accomplishing their mission," he told reporters at a news
conference when asked about anti-terrorism efforts.

"The results are encouraging ... Mauritania is engaged in
the struggle against terrorism," Boubacar said.

(Additional reporting by Caroline Drees in Washington)