Nouakchott, June 8 (Reuters): Street battles raged through Mauritania’s capital today and residents said rebel troops stormed the presidential palace in an apparent coup against a pro-Israel leader who has cracked down on Islamists.
Mutineers roamed Nouakchott’s centre, but gunfire continued and it was far from clear they had overall control in the northwest African country’s worst crisis since President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya took power in a bloodless 1984 coup. Residents said the rebels entered the presidential palace after the guards, telling neighbours that they could no longer hold out, fled.
French officials formally denied reports that Taya was hiding at the former colonial power’s embassy.
There were no further broadcasts from state radio after a late morning announcement that the President was in control of the Sahara desert state, which straddles black and Arab Africa.
Residents said they believed the uprising had been staged by officers from an armoured unit and the air force. “Dozens of people have been wounded and the hospitals are doing the best to cope,” said one resident. Hundreds of prisoners took advantage of the chaos to escape and looters carted off bags of money and parcels from the post office.
Tensions have been bubbling in the almost exclusively Muslim country since the US-led war on Iraq. The government has cracked down on suspected Islamists and politicians close to ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Thirty-two Islamic leaders were charged this month with threatening national security. Police sources said they were suspected of links to a foreign network of Islamic extremists. The charges made no reference to that.