MAURITANIA: New wave of arrests presented as crackdown on Islamic extremists

Nouakchott, 12 May 2005 (IRIN) - The government of Mauritania has launched a new wave of arrests against political opponents, detaining more than 30 people who it accuses of being Islamic radicals and terrorists seeking to destabilise the country.

However, local religious leaders and the Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group, say President Maaouiya Ould Taya, a close ally of France and the United States, is simply using Western fears of Islamic fundamentalism and global terrorism as pretext to muzzle his opponents.

According to Mauritanian religious leaders, more than 30 individuals have been detained since late March and are currently being held by police without trial under what security forces say is a crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists.

The government has accused nine of the detainees of being linked to al Qaeda, the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden that claimed responsibility for the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

However, Selon Salek Ould Sidi Mahmoud, who describes himself as a moderate Islamist and a spokesman for those detained, said Ould Taya's authoritarian government was merely using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to persecute its critics.

“I do not think that al Qaeda have invested in Mauritania, which is so far from its main bases and safe houses. I think that these notions are entirely invented by the government’s political police,” he told IRIN.

Al Qaeda has its origins in the uprisings against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The principal stated aims of al Qaeda are to drive Americans and American influence out of all Muslim nations, destroy Israel and topple pro-Western dictatorships around the Middle East.

“I am astonished that the political forces are making out that this peaceful country is a den of terrorism and al Qaeda cells… and that the Islamist movement is entirely terrorist,” said Sidi Mahmoud.

A new report by International Crisis Group, released on Wednesday, came to similar conclusions:

“The [Mauritanian] regime is taking advantage of the US-led struggle against terrorism to legitimise its denial of democratic rights,” said Robert Malley, Director of ICG’s Middle East and North Africa programme in a statement.

ICG surmises that Ould Taya’s policy could further destabilise this poor desert country, which is on the verge of a modest oil boom.

The former army colonel, who seized power in a 1984 coup, was nearly ousted by a military uprising in 2003 and claims to have defused two more coup attempts since then.

“By giving credence to the notion that Islamists are linked to the armed rebels, Ould Taya runs the risk of leading the state into an impasse, making it dangerously reliant on US backing against growing domestic discontent,” said Malley.

In 1999, Mauritania became the only Islamic republic to forge diplomatic relations with Israel, and domestic opposition to Ould Taya's rule has crystalised around this link.

When the Israeli foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, visited Nouakchott on 2 May, walls across the city were daubed with anti-Israeli graffiti and hundreds of protestors took to the streets with banners denouncing Shalom as an ‘Assassin’.

The security forces responded with tear gas and night-time raids on the homes of suspected organisers of the protests.

But the current crackdown on dissent began with the arrest of dozens of alleged Islamic fundamentalists several weeks before Shalom's visit.

At the end of April the government claimed to have pulled in two men in the southeast of the country, who according to the Communications Minister, Hamoud Ould Abdi, were linked to al Qaeda. However, he gave no details of their connection to the organisation.

In early April, seven other ‘insurgents’ were arrested and accused of being part of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an Algerian-based armed Islamic group that is best known for its abduction of several European tourists in the Sahara Desert two years ago. The United States believes it has close links to al Qaeda.

The detention of these seven men was only revealed by the government on 9 May, after they had been in detention for a month. Police sources said they were part of a group of 20 to 30 Mauritanian youths who had received military training by the Salafists in Algeria with a view to attacking civilian and military targets in Mauritania.

But the arrests don’t stop there.

According to the Al-Akhbar Arabic news website, some 20 Mauritanian women were arrested by police in late April after leaving a mosque in Nouakchott that hours before been tear-gassed to disperse people attending a lecture by the prominent religious leader, Cheikh Mohamed Lahcen Ould Deddou.

Ould Deddou, who is an outspoken critic of Ould Taya’s relations with Israel, was arrested and remains in detention, police sources told IRIN.

Islamic fundamentalism - and the appeal of critics such as Ould Deddou - is on the rise, according to the ICG report, mainly among the disaffected and poorly educated Mauritanian youth.

The ICG noted that the threat of terrorism “barely even exists in Mauritania” but warned that the crushing of local organisations with very real grievances could help to create one.

Mauritania is a vast desert nation with a population of less than three million. Gross national income is just US $430 per capita and nearly 60 percent of the adult population is illiterate, according to World Bank figures from 2003.

However, the country is bracing for an influx of petro-dollars once its first offshore oil well comes into commercial production at the end of this year or in early 2006.

Money linked to the development of oil has already started flooding into the country, and for the ruling elite that clusters round the president, the bonanza has begun. More and larger more expensive four-wheel-drive vehicles are ploughing the dusty streets of the capital than ever before.

On the basis of discoveries announced so far, oil analysts expect production to reach 165,000 barrels per day in 2009.

At current prices of over US $50 per barrel, that would pour an extra $300 million a year into the econmy, but government critics are not optimistic that the windfall income will be evenly distributed.

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