Government says foils third coup plot in 15 months

The Mauritanian government has announced that it has foiled a fresh coup plot and has once more accused Burkina Faso and Libya of supporting disaffected soldiers seeking to overthrow President Maaouiya Ould Taya.

"This military group had criminal designs which they were going to execute this week," Mauritania's Interior Minister Mohamed Ghali Ould Cherif Ahmed told reporters on Tuesday night.

"They planned to attack several nerve centres, like the presidency, the army headquarters, the airport, official media organs and power plants," he said.

This is the third time in 15 months that the authorities claim to have foiled an attempted coup against Ould Taya. The former army colonel himself seized power in this desert nation of 2.8 million people through a coup in 1984.

The government has accused the same group of dissident officers of being responsible for all three attempts to depose Ould Taya, a pro-Western strongman, who has angered many of his staunchly Islamic countrymen by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and switching support from Iraq to the United States.

Ould Taya's government began accusing Burkina Faso and Libya of backing the insurgents last month.

The interior minister said on Tuesday that army captain Abderrahmane Ould Mini, had been arrested in connection with the latest coup plot. This officer was believed to have been involved in a serious military uprising in June last year, he added.

The June 2003 coup attempt led to two days of heavy fighting in the capital Nouakchott before forces loyal to Ould Taya regained control of the city. The government subsequently arrested 131 military personnel who are due to go on trial in November.

Last month, the government said it had foiled a second coup plot by the same group and accused Burkina Faso and Libya of providing the dissidents with shelter and support. It subsequently arrested about 30 more people.

Government officials showed journalists a truck on Tuesday night which they said had been loaded with arms and ammunition designed to be used in the latest coup attempt.

It had been packed with 44 automatic rifles, 51,000 rounds of ammunition and five rocket-propelled grenade launchers, they said.

Military sources told IRIN that in addition to Captain Ould Mini, half a dozen other military officers had been arrested in connection with the latest plot and several others had gone into hiding.

Residents in Nouakchott said security had been heightened around the state radio station in recent days and that the security forces had thrown up more road blocks along major routes to check vehicles.

Last year's military uprising was led by two former army officers, Saleh Ould Hanenna and Mohamed Cheikhna, who both escaped after the coup failed. They went on to announce the formation of an armed rebel movement called "The Knights of Change."

The government said it believed Ould Hanenna returned clandestinely to Mauritania from Burkina Faso two weeks ago after passing through Mali and Senegal. His photograph was broadcast on Mauritanian television on Tuesday night as police tried to track him down.

"Investigations have shown that this group came from Burkina Faso which helped draw up this diabolical plan and that it received substantial material support from Libya," the interior minister said.

He accused Libya of passing large sums of money to the coup plotters via a personal advisor to Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore.

Both countries have denied any links to the plotters and have asked the African Union to investigate Mauritania's claims.

The latest bout of political instability comes as Mauritania is trying to deal with an invasion of locusts which according to government estimates, has already destroyed 40 percent of this year's crops and desert pasture.

International agricultural experts say efforts by the authorities to kill the swarms of insects by spraying them with pesticide are woefully inadequate. As a result, swarms of locusts bred in Mauritania have been drifting south to neigbouring Senegal and Mali and destroying crops.

In Mauritania itself, destitute farmers have already begun drifting away from their villages to join the mass of urban unemployed living in slums around the country's main towns.