NOUAKCHOTT, (Reuters) – Gunmen fired on Israel’s embassy in Mauritania on Friday, wounding three people including a French woman outside a nearby nightclub.
The attack followed appeals by political parties for President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi to break off diplomatic relations with Israel to reflect anger in Mauritania over events in Gaza, which is under an Israeli blockade.
Israel’s ambassador said no embassy staff were hurt in the shooting early on Friday, barely a month after two attacks by suspected al Qaeda militants in the West African country.
Some witnesses said the attackers, who numbered at least three, shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) as they exchanged fire with guards at the fortified embassy in a tree-lined street of the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott.
Mauritania is one of just three Arab countries to have relations with the Jewish state, along with Egypt and Jordan. “This is very sad. The relation between Israel and Mauritania is a symbol of peace,” Israeli Ambassador Boaz Bismuth told Reuters. He said the embassy was hit by bullets. “A shooting on a foreign embassy is a very serious incident.” The building’s protective concrete blocks and guards appeared to have prevented the attackers from getting nearer.
The gunmen also sprayed bullets at a nightclub about 50 metres (yards) from the embassy, injuring several people.
Diplomats said a French woman was hit in a car outside the club. She was due to be flown to France on Friday, though her condition was not serious.
Mauritania Foreign Minister Mohamed Saleck Ould Mohamed Lemine summoned the Israeli ambassador to express regret over the attack.
Israel radio said a defence official left for Mauritania on Friday to check security measures and Israeli embassies around the world had been placed on alert.
Mauritania is an Islamic Republic straddling black and Arab Africa. In late December, suspected Mauritanian members of al Qaeda’s North African branch killed four French tourists and some soldiers in two separate attacks.
U.S.-based IntelCenter, which monitors Web messages of Islamist groups, says al Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri called for attacks on the embassy in February 2007.
The 2008 Lisbon-Dakar rally, which was due to pass through Mauritania, was cancelled early in January over security fears following the two December killings. “It is absolutely unfortunate and unacceptable that the country has suffered three major attacks in one month,” former Mauritanian foreign minister Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, now U.N. envoy to Somalia, told Reuters at an African summit in Ethiopia. “It is a small country and we cannot afford this.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) of Algeria, claimed responsibility for the soldiers’ killings in December.
Two suspected killers of the French tourists, who also confessed to being al Qaeda members, are being held in Nouakchott after they were extradited from Guinea-Bissau.
President Abdallahi has denied the existence of a terrorist cell in Mauritania.