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MAURITANIA: Coup attempt leads to fighting around presidential palace

ABIDJAN, 8 June 2003 (IRIN) - There was heavy fighting around the presidential palace and army headquarters in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott on Sunday morning as a faction of the army attempted to depose President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya in a coup.

Residents in Nouakchott contacted by telephone from Cote d'Ivoire on Sunday morning, said gunfire broke out around the presidential palace at around 1am and had continued sporadically since then. Neither side appeared to be in full control of the situation.

One Mauritanian resident in Nouakchott told IRIN: "I am about 800 metres from the presidential palace and all the streets leading to it are blocked by rebel forces...I can hear continuous bursts of machine gun fire and occasional tank rounds."

There rebels had surrounded the presidential palace and were attacking it with tanks and machine guns, he added.

The resident said the army was split, but the gendarmerie appeared to be supporting President Ould Taya, who himself came to power in a military coup in 1984. Many people in the street said the rebels were led by a colonel and troops from the military garrison in Atar, a desert town 440 km northeast of Nouakchott, he added.

However, a foreign diplomat in the capital who is following the situation closely said he had no information about who was behind the coup attempt or what kind of political interests the rebel faction represented. "There was a coup attempt overnight and there is sporadic fighting, but my understanding is that President Ould Taya is still in control," he said.

The diplomat said there had been fighting at the presidential palace and at the army headquarters, which are less than one km away, but the rest of the city appeared calm.

He said it was not clear whether or not the military uprising was linked to a crackdown on Islamic militants by President Taya since the overthrow of Sadaam Hussein in Iraq. Dozens of Islamic radicals and opposition activists were arrested in May and the Arabic language weekly newspaper Erraya was closed down last week for "subversion and intolerance."

Although Mauritania is officially a multi-party democracy, Ould Taya has in practice imposed strong curbs opposition activities in this mainly desert nation of less than three million people.

The main opposition parties boycotted an election in 1997 which confirmed Ould Taya in power for a six-year term. Tension had been growing ahead of fresh presidential elections due in December.

Mauritania is a former French colony, whose economy relies mainly on exports of iron ore and fish. There are hopes of developing offshore oil following a promising find by the Australian company Woodside Petroleum two years ago. The UN World Food Programme has warned of severe food shortages developing in the east of the country following poor rains last year.

Mauritania forms a bridge between black Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world of the Mahgreb and is officially an Islamic state. Race riots erupted in 1989 after which tens of thousands of black Mauritanians sought refuge in neighbouring Senegal.

Theme (s): Conflict, Governance,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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