Clashes erupt in Mauritania, Qaeda suspected

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Fighting erupted between Mauritania’s army and suspected Islamists in the east of the country yesterday, with witnesses reporting heavy and automatic weapons fire and military aircraft flying overhead.

There were no official statements on the clash but security sources and local media reported about ten Islamists killed and the government news agency said an attack had been repelled and the gunmen were being chased eastwards, towards Mali.

Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, AQIM, said it killed 20 Mauritanian soldiers in fighting in Mali last month, rejecting claims by Nouakchott that 15 jihadists had died, according to a U.S.-based monitoring service.

Countries in Africa’s Sahel-Sahara region are battling an increased threat from gunmen linked to al Qaeda, who frequently cooperate with and operate alongside a plethora of rebels, bandits and traffickers in the huge, largely desert zone.

Witnesses said suspected AQIM fighters attacked a military base in Bassiknou, near Nema, in the far east of Mauritania, yesterday.
“There was lots of automatic weapons fire and we heard heavy weapons fire for about an hour,” resident Cheikhna Ould Deddah Bouya told Reuters by telephone from the town. “Two military aircraft flew over the area and the shooting stopped.”

Deddah later told Reuters he saw burned cars on the outskirts of the town.

The Nouakchott News Agency reported yesterday that a source close to AQIM said the group was behind the attack and fighters from Mali had taken part.

Mauritania’s government has not yet given any statement but the official news agency confirmed an attack on an army base.
“After government forces fought back, the terrorists fled towards Malian territory, where they are currently being chased by our forces,” the AMI news agency reported.

Several security forces and local media said ten AQIM fighters had been killed.

Tuesday’s fighting follows a fierce battle on June 24 in the Wagadou forest in Mali, near the border with Mauritania, during which Mauritania’s army said it killed 15 militants and lost two soldiers in a raid on an AQIM base.

In a statement initially sent to the Nouakchott News Agency on July 3, AQIM has denied Mauritania’s versions of the battle.

AQIM said the operation resulted in “the death of no less than 20 soldiers and the destruction and burning of 12 vehicles,” according to a translation by the SITE monitoring group of the AQIM statement in Arabic.

The group said it had lost two men in the battle but seized some light weapons, according to SITE.

SITE said the Nouakchott News Agency has previously received al Qaeda statements before they appeared elsewhere.

The Wagadou raid appeared to be a joint operation between Mali and Mauritania, two nations that have had a prickly relationship in the fight against AQIM due to previous unsanctioned Mauritanian raids into Mali.

Western nations, led by France and the United States, have been struggling to forge better regional cooperation between African nations, a weakness that AQIM has taken advantage of to establish itself in the desert zones.