Mauritania troops may be al Qaeda captives-officers

Mauritania troops may be al Qaeda captives-officers

By Hachem Sidi Salem Reuters16 Sep 2008 18:00:56 GMT

NOUAKCHOTT, Sept 16 (Reuters) – Mauritania’s army believes 12 soldiers who are missing after an ambush by suspected al Qaeda militants on a patrol in the north are being held captive by their attackers, senior officers said on Tuesday.

Military air and land patrols which searched the ambush site after Monday’s attack in the Saharan Islamic state had neither found any bodies nor the two vehicles which failed to return to base, the two officers, who asked not to be named, said.

« We don’t have any explanation other than that they’ve been kidnapped, » one of the officers told Reuters. Some bloodstains were found at the ambush site.

Initial reports on Monday of the attack near Tourine, about 700 km (450 miles) northeast of the capital Nouakchott, said the four-vehicle army patrol came under heavy fire. Hundreds of military reinforcements had been sent to the desert north.

The military officers said they believed the attackers, suspected members of al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, could try to use the army captives to demand the release of militant colleagues held or imprisoned by Mauritanian authorities.

But they said no communication had been received from the attackers.

Monday’s ambush in rugged terrain about 100 km (60 miles) southeast of the iron ore mining town of Zouerate was the first attack against the Mauritanian army since a military coup last month which deposed the country’s elected civilian president.

Following the Aug. 6 coup that toppled President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, al Qaeda’s North Africa wing called for a holy war in the country, which has been seen in the West as an ally in the U.S.-led global war against terrorism.

Recent statements from the group had also pledged to obtain the release of its members detained in Mauritania.

Al Qaeda had claimed an earlier attack in December against the Mauritanian army in which four soldiers were killed. In 2005, gunmen from the same group — then calling itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) — killed 15 Mauritanian soldiers in a raid on a northeast garrison.

The latest ambush has revived fears that al Qaeda’s North Africa branch, which has carried out bloody bomb attacks in the Maghreb, may be extending its operations further southwards into sub-Saharan Africa, which is a source of crude oil to the West.

Western donors like the United States and Europe, which have condemned the coup against Abdallahi, had been supporting the civilian Mauritanian president in his efforts to tackle what appeared to be a growing threat of Islamic extremist violence.

In December, besides the attack against the army, militant gunmen also killed four French tourists, and the incidents forced the cancellation of the annual trans-Saharan Dakar rally.

An al Qaeda attack on the Israeli embassy in February highlighted Mauritania’s status as one of the few Arab countries with diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.

In its Aug. 12 call for a « holy war » in Mauritania, the al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb said the generals who toppled Abdallahi in the coup were probably acting with a green light from « infidel states; America, France and Israel ». (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/) (Writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Alistair Thomson)