NOUAKCHOTT, (Reuters) – Mauritanian security forces captured eight suspected al Qaeda militants in an early morning sweep on Wednesday, including a hunted fugitive accused of killing four French tourists, officials said.
The Dec. 24 killing of the French tourists and a shooting attack against the Israeli embassy in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott in February raised fears of a rise in Islamic militant violence in the traditionally sleepy Saharan state. Those arrested included Sidi Ould Sidna, a suspect in the slaying of the French tourists, whose escape from police custody outside a courtroom this month led to a nationwide manhunt and a series of raids on suspected militant hideouts.
Chief prosecutor Mohamed Abadllahi Ould Tiyib said Sidna was detained along with another suspect, Khadim Ould Semane, who is accused of masterminding the Israeli embassy attack. “The two most important suspects have been arrested. I have seen them. They are in detention at the gendarmerie,” he said.
Security sources said Wednesday’s raid took place without a shot being fired, unlike other attempts to arrest al Qaeda suspects since Sidna’s escape, one of which triggered a shootout in which a policeman and a suspect were killed. “The police confirmed to us that this morning they arrested eight people in all; two main suspects Ould Sidna and Ould Semane as well as six other suspects,” said Abderrahmane Ould Bilal, registrar to the state prosecutor.
Sidna’s escape from police custody in early April was an embarrassment to Mauritanian authorities and raised questions over the country’s ability to counter increasing insecurity and rising Islamic militancy across the Saharan region.
Government security services launched a series of operations in Nouakchott in an effort to catch Sidna and other al Qaeda militants. They rounded up several suspects including one man accused of involvement in the tourists’ killing who tried to escape dressed as a woman with a Muslim veil over his face.
Semane has been on the run from police for more than a year. He was convicted in absentia in June 2007 in a mass trial of more than 20 people suspected of trying to set up an al Qaeda-linked group in Mauritania.
Most of the defendants in that trial were acquitted, but Semane was convicted of possessing illegal arms and false documents and sentenced to two years.
The spate of attacks since December, claimed by al Qaeda’s North African branch, triggered concerns that al Qaeda was extending its operations into Mauritania from its established bases in neighbouring Algeria and nearby Morocco.
Within days of the killing of the French as they picnicked by a roadside in southern Mauritania, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for an attack on a remote northern army post in which several Mauritanian soldiers were killed.
The attacks prompted the first cancellation of the Dakar rally after French officials said al Qaeda had made direct threats against the French-organised trans-Saharan motor race.
The string of attacks has been a blow for a fledgling tourist industry which is an important source of hard currency for Mauritania, a mostly arid country which exports iron ore, fish and a small amount of crude oil but little else.