In the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, heavy fighting around the presidential palace and army headquarters broke out around 1AM as an army faction attempted to depose President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya in a coup. Rebel units had surrounded the presidential palace and were attacking it with tanks and machine guns. Fighting reported around the army headquarters (less than one km away) and at a tank base, as well as the radio and television stations, but the rest of the city appeared calm. There was an account of a tank on fire in front of the radio building and another of a plane overflying the city several times, as well as anti-aircraft fire.
The skirmishing continued sporadically throughout the day, with neither side appearing to be in full control of the situation. A number of downtown stores were looted and prisoners were on the streets with sacks of stolen cash, but by late afternoon the police and national guards had been deployed.
State radio later went off air, the building and the nearby education ministry ransacked, apparently by prisoners who reportedly escaped from cells when prison guards abandoned their posts in the chaos.
By day's end, there was still no independent confirmation of who the alleged coup plotters were and no official announcement or news of the night's events on state media. A gendarmerie officer claimed that Salah Ould Hnana, a "pro-Baathist tank colonel dismissed from the army last year" had led the rebellion. Other rumors had the rebels led by a colonel and troops from the military garrison in Atar (a desert town 440 km northeast of Nouakchott). President Ould Taya is a pro-Israeli Arab president, who recently cracked down on Islamic militants in the country's northwest.
The President and his family were reportedly safe and he was supposedly directing the operation to put down the coup attempt from the safety of the palace, although there were also rumors that the rebels had entered the presidential office.
The Islamic republic's government had recently been cracking down on Islamic militants, while local political and religious commentators have announced that Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network cells were "alive and well and living in Mauritania". On June 4, 36 people were charged with "plotting against the constitutional order" and an assortment of other offenses. In May, Mauritanian Prime Minister Cheikh El-Avia Ould Mohamed Khouna warned that extremists hoped to use Mauritania as a new base, after being chased out of other countries.
Mauritania is a former French colony with a population of only 2.7 million (two thirds of them Arab, the rest black African), with an economy that relies mainly on exporting iron ore and fish. The Australian company Woodside Petroleum started looking for oil offshore two years ago. - Adam Geibel
Mauritania map, online at: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/africa/mauritania_pol95.jpg
City map of Nouakchott online at: