More news from Mauritania. Word on the street is that two people have died and fifteen people have been hospitalized in a massive fire-fight in the chic Tavregh Zeina neighborhood of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott today. The fighting is linked to the massive manhunt going on in search of the escaped Islamist accused of killing four French tourists late last year, Sidi Ould Sidna. There is speculation that Ould Sidna may have been killed in the fighting (Correction: Ould Sidna was among the wounded, and is still on the run). It is unclear as to what the composition of wounded has been (in terms of soldiers, police, militants, or civilians). The government is describing the clash as one between the government and “Salafists,” a descriptor easily exchanged for “terrorists.”*
Mauritanian sources suspect that there is French involvement on the government’s side (French intell. has been in the capital for the past two weeks and the French were hopping mad to hear that Ould Sidna had escaped so quickly). According sources in Nouakchott, it is believed that four militants have escaped, and that police casualties are high because they attempted to arrest the militants, as opposed to killing them. Two wounded terrorists have been arrested. It is also being reported from the capital that the head of Mauritania’s elite anti-terror unit was killed in the fighting. Here is the Reuters report. The story remains ongoing.
Ould Sidna’s escape has placed the Mauritanian president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in a precarious position. The coup that removed the country’s former dictator Maaouiya Ould Sidi Ahmed Taya, was led chiefly by three colonels, Col. Ely Ould Mohamed Vall, Col. Mohamed Ould Abdel Azziz and Ould Ghazouani (all of whom belong to the same tribe, the Oulad Besba`a). Ould Vall, the public face of the coup is believed to have left office as the Chairman of the Military Council for Justice and Democracy somewhat begrudgingly, having wanted to remain in office. Ould Abdel Aziz, head of the presidential guard pushed the transfer of power with Abdallahi as his candidate. President Abdallahi recently sacked Commissar Ould Adde from his post as the head of the Direction de sûreté de l’État, roughly equivalent to the mukhaberat), in favor of Commissar Mohamed Lemine Ould Ahmed, a character known to be a “total push over,” in the words of a Nouakchott resident in the know. The removal of Commissar Ould Adde was part of a larger purge of the army and police corps of officers known to be pro-Vall (Ould Abdel Azziz’s cousin and as of late his political opponent), or pro-Ahmed Ould Daddah**. Add to this that it is expected that Abdallahi will promote Cols. Ould Abdel Azziz, Ould Ghazouani, and Felix Negre to the rank of general within the next few months, and one sees that Abdallahi is attempting to neutralize Vall’s camp by strengthening his own base of power.
One might call it sandbagging. That Abdallahi is fortifying his position in such a manner suggests that he fears the other centers of power inside the country may not allow him to finish his term in office. Ould Abdel Azziz is tremendously unpopular, being seen as a crook, and, in the eyes of Col. Vall, a usurper. Abdallahi does not enjoy a wide following either. His performance has not pleased the more ambitious segments of the military elite, either in the bungling of the anti-terror campaign,*** or in the country’s dismal economic performance. Mauritania, like much the rest of the Sahel, is suffering from drought. That coupled with high prices of foodstuffs has placed the country on the verge of famine. There is a feeling within the governing class that others could do much better. Col. Vall is said to be the likely candidate, and his return to politics, likely with Abdel Azziz’s, could very well coincide with Abdallahi’s exit.
*[ In Mauritania, "Salafi" is used interchangeably with "terrorist" [irhabi], because “Islamist” is not yet an insult. ]
**[ The major political opponent of Abdallahi (having come in second in the 2007 elections), the brother of Mokhtar Ould Daddah, Mauritania's first president, and opponent to Ould Taya since 1992; i.e., the number one political figure in the country. ]
***[ That is not to say that his government does not have popular support against the Salafists; the necessity of defeating the them is a consensus issue in Mauritania, and the government enjoys close to unanimous support. ]