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Last Updated: Monday, 9 June, 2003, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Q&A: Mauritania's murky coup

Normal life has now resumed in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, a day after the government announced that a coup bid had been crushed.

The fighting came out of the blue, with President Maaouiya Ould Taya seeming to have firmly entrenched himself in power since he took over in a 1984 coup.

Who was behind the coup attempt?

It is now suspected that the coup was led by hardline Islamists and disgruntled army officers who were dissatisfied by President Ould Taya's authoritarian rule and his ties with the west and Israel.

A government minister blamed Colonel Salah Ould Hananna, who was sacked from the army last month, together with former minister Mohammed Ould Cheikhna.

Colonel Salah Ould Hananna (right) with Sidi Ould Lekhdeyem, who was not part of the coup attempt
Colonel Salah Ould Hananna (right) did not have a political agenda

Mr Ould Hananna does not seem to have had a strong political agenda, beyond trying to remove those who sacked him.

Several people were arrested in May on suspicion of having links to Islamist groups.

The new minister of Islamic affairs issued a public warning against "ignorant extremists trying to control mosques through terror".

How strong is the link between Iraq and the anti-government groups?

Several reports say that the coup plotters had sympathies with Saddam Hussein's former Baathist regime in Iraq.

In Mauritania, the Baath party is known as a Socialist party because its members fear that the authorities would associate it with non-Arabic ethnic groupings.

The United States-led war in Iraq increased tensions between the pro-western government and many ordinary citizens who sympathised both with the Iraq regime and the Palestinian cause.

The Editor of Maghreb Review in Mauritania, Mohamed Ben Madani told the BBC's Network Africa says that some members of al-Qaeda and officers of the ousted Iraqi regime have fled to Mauritania. How important is religion in Mauritania?

The country is officially an Islamic Republic and all of Mauritania's different social and ethnic groups are Muslims.

It used to be allied to Saddam Hussein but President Taya fell out with him and became one of only three Arabic countries to recognise Israel in 1999.

Any other possible sources of unrest?

The opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UFD) has condemned the recent arrests as an attempt to muzzle critics ahead of elections scheduled for November.

As well as Islamists, university professors and judges were also charged with plotting against the state. UFD leader Ahmed Ould Daddah is the son of Mauritania's first president, who was deposed in a coup in 1978.

Mr Ould Daddah boycotted the 1997 presidential elections because of alleged fraud in earlier polls.

Mr Ould Daddah and other UFD activists have been arrested on several occasions.

Who else could be involved?

The Editor of Maghreb Review says that many Mauritanians of black African origin, especially former slaves have for a long time wanted a change in the government, but they do not have the army support.

Moctar Cheine, a spokesman for the anti-slavery campaign group SOS Slave, told the BBC's Network Africa programme that he supported any change of regime in Mauritania.

Slavery was outlawed in 1981 but SOS Slave says that there are still thousands of slaves in the country.

Mauritania is also divided between light-skinned, Arabic-speaking Moors and dark-skinned people who speak West African languages.

Following race riots in 1989 in Nouakchott and the Senegalese capital, Dakar, thousands of black Mauritanians were expelled and the army purged.

Many still live on refugee camps just across the Senegalese border.


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