Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who came under fire from his own troops just hours before, took to his country’s airwaves Sunday, saying the shooting incident was an accident.
“I want to reassure all citizens of my well-being after the accident committed by an army unit on an unpaved road around Touela. …Everything is fine,” he said in an interview broadcast on official Mauritanian television.Troops shot the president late Saturday in what the government is calling a case of “friendly fire” — though others believe it may have been something more sinister. Aziz’s convoy mistakenly came under fire as it was heading back toward the capital of Nouakchott. The gunshots came from a military unit stationed alongside the road in the west African country.
Aziz said he had a successful operation to treat minor injuries.
But witnesses said they believe the incident was an assassination attempt, because unknown armed men shot their guns at the president and ran away. The witnesses said the armed men “directly” targeted the president as he was returning from his farm in Inchiri province, near the capital.
Mauritania has a history of political instability and faces threats from al Qaeda militants.
A former general, Aziz came to power in a bloodless 2008 military coup — one of many such coups the country of about 3.4 million people has had since it gained independence from France in 1960. He ousted Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who had been the nation’s first democratically elected leader, according to the U.S. State Department.
Aziz was elected president in 2009. Still, the CIA describes the country’s leadership as a “military junta.”
Security in Mauritania has been ratcheted up in recent weeks amid concerns about “armed terrorist groups” in nearby northern Mali, according to Magharebia, a website sponsored by the U.S. Africa Command — a part of the U.S. military focused on the continent.
The measures include a bolstered security presence on main streets, near embassies and by government buildings in Nouakchott, as well as stepped-up patrols, Magharebia said.
No official reason has been given for the enhanced security, according to the report. But the publication, quoting terrorism experts and local news reports, said it may be related to threats posed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In May, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Mauritania because of AQIM activities.
“As a result of perceived Western involvement in counterterrorism efforts, AQIM has declared its intention to attack Western targets,” the warning said.
The United States engages with Mauritania on a range of issues, including counterterrorism, food security, trade promotion and efforts to strengthen human rights, the State Department said.