- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

An attack in Mauritania by Islamic terrorists this month has not diminished the West African nation’s commitment to stand alongside Washington and others in the global fight against terrorism, the country’s ambassador to the United States said.

Fifteen Mauritanian soldiers were killed in the June 4 raid on a remote military outpost by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, based in neighboring Algeria. Nine of the attackers also died.

“This attack was done by the Salafists to demonstrate to al Qaeda that they are an important element in the fight against the West,” Ambassador Tijani Ould Kerim told The Washington Times last week.

The Salafist group — widely referred to as the GSPC, its initials in French — is on the U.S. list of international terrorist groups and has been loosely linked to al Qaeda.

While the death toll in Mauritania does not compare in scale with the major terrorist attacks around the world since September 11, the Salafist raid appears to have shaken the relatively peaceful western Saharan state to its bootstraps.

“We consider what happened was a very serious event, intended in part to cut Mauritania from its ties to the global war against terror,” Mr. Kerim said.

Mauritania has taken several small steps to open up the political process, by holding elections that drew criticism on their lack of fairness. The present government headed by President Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya came to power in a coup d’etat in 1984.

It has also taken a big step, fraught with risk, by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1999, only the third Arab state to do so. The others are Egypt and Jordan.

Until the GSPC attack, the vast desert nation with sizable oil resources made occasional news for suppressing domestic dissent and the plight of its black population. Although the country has outlawed slavery, it still faces the burden of uprooting past enslavement of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa by Arabs across the Maghreb.

The day after the barracks attack, newspapers in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, described the blow against the army as the work of bandits and smugglers.

The base is located at Lemgheity, close to the border with Mali.

Malian military sources told newspapers more than 50 soldiers had been killed and that the attackers burned two trucks before fleeing with six military vehicles.

Unnamed Mauritanian government officials blamed domestic foes for the raid. Two leaders of the opposition are in jail following an attempted coup in February.

Other sources said the raiders were GSPC members. In Internet postings cited by the Mauritanian press, the Salafists seemed to confirm they carried out the attack. One posting called it a strike “to avenge our jailed Mauritanian brothers.”

Another posting said the attack was meant to punish Mauritania for participating in a nine-nation U.S. program to train West Africans in counterterrorism operations. In addition to Mauritania, countries participating in the program are Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad and Nigeria.

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