Government accuses Burkina Faso and Libya of backing coup

The government of Mauritania has accused Libya and Burkina Faso of backing an attempt to topple President Maaouiya Ould Taya earlier this month and has announced the arrest of 31 military officers in connection with the alleged putsch.

Colonel Sidi Ould Riha, the chief of staff of the National Gendarmerie, said on state radio on Thursday that the coup attempt was organised by Saleh Ould Hanenna and Mohamed Cheikhna.

These two former army officers masterminded a previous coup attempt in June 2003, which led to two days of fighting in the capital Nouakchott before forces loyal to Ould Taya regained control.

Ould Riha said the two men were now living in Burkina Faso which had offered their group arms, finance and training. He said they had communicated with their fellow conspirators inside Mauritania by e-mail messages which were picked up and replied to in internet cafes.

Ould Hanenna and Cheikhna had planned to lead two separate commando groups into Mauritania from Libya and Burkina Faso between 16 and 20 August while Ould Taya was in France, he said.

The president, a former army colonel, seized power in a 1984 coup and has ruled this desert nation with a firm hand ever since, despite several attempts by dissident factions of the army to unseat him.

He had been planning to leave for France on August 14 to attend celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the landing of liberation forces from Africa in the Mediterranean port of Toulon towards the end of the Second World War. The event was attended by French President Jacques Chirac and several African leaders. However, in the end, Ould Taya chose to stay at home.

The gendarmerie commander said the two groups of commandos, which included Arab nomads of unspecified origin as well as Mauritanians, were to have joined up with conspirators inside the country and attacked military barracks.

He did not explain how these groups of armed men would have entered Mauritania from Burkina Faso and Libya, neither of which borders Mauritania.

A military spokesman read out the names of 31 military officers arrested in connection with the alleged coup attempt. They included seven colonels, 13 majors and seven captains.

A military judge revealed earlier this week that 131 other military officers were in custody awaiting trial in connection with last year's coup attempt. Political and military sources had previously told IRIN that 120 military personnel and three civilians were detained in connection with the failed putsch.

The first news of a fresh attempt to topple Ould Taya emerged on August 9, when military and political sources reported a new wave of arrests within the armed forces, mostly of officers from Ould Hanenna's Awlad Nasser clan.

The Awlad Nasser are light-skinned Bidan Moors from the region around Ayoun el Atrous, a town in southeastern Mauritania, 800 km from Nouakchott. However, the army high command is dominated by officers who, like Ould Taya, are light-skinned Bidan Moors from northern Mauritania.

The Bidan account for a minority of Mauritania's 2.8 million staunchly Muslim population, but ever since independence from France in 1960, they have formed the ruling elite. However, the Bidan are divided into various clans which vie with one another for power and influence.

Mauritania's population also consists of dark-skinned Harratin Moors, the descendants of former slaves, and black Africans with closer links to Sub-Saharan Africa than the Arab world. The latter mostly live near the Senegal river in the extreme south of the country.

This latest bout of political instability comes as Mauritania is grappling with an invasion of locusts.

Swarms of these insects are rapidly devouring the sparse desert pasture on which its livestock herders depend. They are also attacking the crops of farmers in the extreme south of Mauritania, threatening large areas of the country with renewed famine.

"The situation is about to become catastrophic in the next few days," Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Babah, the head of Mauritania's Centre to Fight Locusts, told IRIN on Thursday, predicting that a new generation of locusts bred in Mauritania would shortly take to the air.

"We're racing against the clock but it's an unfair race because we only have 10 percent of the resources we need to win it," he added.