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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 June, 2003, 18:41 GMT 19:41 UK
Search on for Mauritania rebels
Celebrations on a Nouakchott street (al Jazeera TV)
Celebrations on a Nouakchott street
People in the Mauritanian capital began returning to the streets on Tuesday as government forces searched for rebels still hiding out after a coup attempt.

President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya returned early on Tuesday to his palace in Nouakchott, which briefly fell to the rebels during the most violent attempt to seize power since the country won independence from France in 1960.

Residents of the capital, contacted by telephone, say soldiers have been removing the wreckage of tanks destroyed during the fighting.

There is no word on the fate of suspected coup leader Sala Ould Hananna, who had been fired from the army after reportedly expressing opposition to Mauritania's ties with Israel.

The coup came after the arrest of 32 Islamists charged with threatening national security.

Authorities have yet to give figures for the number who died on either side.

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Reports say another coup leader, Mohamed Ould Cheikhna, a squadron commander of the Mauritanian Air Force has been arrested and that manhunt operations of those who took part in the failed attempted coup are still under way.

President Taya has praised loyal troops for putting down the coup, in his first broadcast since fighting erupted on Sunday morning.

He said in a broadcast that it had taken some time to regain control of the city "because it was necessary to destroy tank after tank".

The uprising has been the most serious challenge so far to the rule of President Taya, who took power in a coup of his own in 1984 and later made enemies among the country's Islamists.

Some of the mutineers are said to be held by loyalists.

Hospitals struggling

Hospitals have been struggling to cope with the casualties and many residents fled their homes during the fighting.

Earlier on Tuesday there were reports of heavy government reinforcements entering Nouakchott from the north.

Colonel Salah Ould Hananna (right) with Sidi Ould Lekhdeyem, who was not part of the coup attempt
Colonel Salah Ould Hananna (right) is on the run

There are also unconfirmed reports that senior commanders on both sides were killed in the fighting.

The insurgents were believed to have taken key government buildings on Sunday.

During the fighting, the president's whereabouts was unknown, with his staff only saying that he was in a "safe place".

There were unconfirmed reports that the army chief-of-staff, Colonel Mohammed Lamine Ndiayane, was killed in Sunday's fighting.

Most people in Nouakchott barricaded themselves in their homes.

"I have decided to lock everyone inside, all members of my family, because we are too scared to go out," said a resident contacted by phone by the Associated Press news.

Deep divisions

Several reports suggested the rebels are sympathetic to Iraq.

Tank on Nouakchott street
Nouakchott has been a city under siege

While Mauritania is officially an Islamic republic, the authorities have cracked down on suspected Islamists and politicians with links to Saddam Hussein since the beginning of the war in Iraq.

The country is one of only three states in the Arab League to hold full diplomatic relations with Israel, and correspondents say the population is largely opposed to these ties.

Mauritania is deeply divided between three main groups - light-skinned, Arabic-speakers, the descendents of slaves and dark-skinned speakers of West African languages.

The BBC's Chris Simpson
"The battle for control of the capital and the country is not yet over"

Q&A: Mauritania's murky coup
09 Jun 03  |  Africa
Country profile: Mauritania
24 May 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Mauritania
16 Nov 02  |  Country profiles


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