A key Western ally in the fight against al-Qaeda in north Africa was shot on the weekend and airlifted to a Paris hospital, in what could spell trouble in an already precarious corner of the world. The President of the huge desert nation of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who has ruled since a political coup in 2008, reportedly had a bullet removed from his stomach late Saturday after what the government-controlled press said had been an “accidental” shooting by a military patrol. Although it appeared on Sunday that Aziz was not critically injured, his evacuation to Paris leaves the country temporarily leaderless at a time when the old colonial power France is considering military strikes just across Mauritania’s border against al Qaeda–linked Islamists who seized control last March in the vast Sahara Desert areas of northern Mali. Since then, about 100,000 Malian refugees have poured into Mauritania.
In order to show that he was still in control, Aziz went on national television on Sunday, fresh out of surgery and lying in his hospital bed. With his clothes and the bedsheet covering his injuries, he appealed for calm, saying, “I want to reassure everyone about my state of health after this incident committed in error.” There was no word on Sunday about the whereabouts of the soldiers who had shot at Aziz’s convoy. The incident occurred near the President’s country ranch about 30 miles outside the capital Nouakchott, according to the government’s account.
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Among Mauritanians, there had been deep skepticism over the official version that the shooting had been an accident, and they were just as inclined to dismiss reports that Aziz had been only lightly wounded. Mauritanians quickly concluded that Saturday’s shooting was likely a failed coup. The country has suffered four coups in 24 years. “We don’t know who is running Mauritania now, the military or the civilians,” tweeted Nasser Weddady, a prominent Mauritanian activist who lives in the U.S. and whose Twitter feed provides a kind of online news service on his country, with a stream of information reported from contacts back home.
Indeed, despite Aziz’s reassurances, removing the President from the scene seems likely to complicate an already dangerous situation. Mauritania earlier this year launched attacks against the Islamist forces in northern Mali, in a failed attempt to dislodge them from power. Now, French President François Hollande is believed to be considering sending in French forces to help, and French officials have broached the idea of a West African military force, believing that negotiations with the Islamist powers in northern Mali would likely prove fruitless, and that the longer their rule is left unchallenged, the tighter their control will grow. The U.S. seems to agree. Earlier this month Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson told reporters that “there will have to be at some point military action” against the militants in northern Mali.
At stake is the fate of Mali — a country now split in two — which is a far bigger economic power than its poor neighbor Mauritania and which had been one of the region’s most stable countries until this year’s coup. Since then, the Islamic militants have installed a hard-line autonomous government run along purist Shari‘a lines, raising fears that they could inspire similar movements in the rest of the region.
Openly supportive of al-Qaeda, they have threatened to launch attacks against Western interests, particularly those of France. The French government and French mining companies have huge investments in the area. Islamist groups are believed to be holding six French hostages in northern Mali, including four workers for the French nuclear-energy giant Areva, who were kidnapped in 2010, and two other French citizens kidnapped last November.
On Saturday, hours before Aziz was shot, the Islamist organization in control of northern Mali vowed to attack French citizens across West Africa if Hollande approves military action in the area. “We will send him the pictures of dead French hostages in the coming days,” Oumar Ould Hamaha, spokesman for one of the Islamist groups controlling northern Mali, said in a statement. “He will not be able to count the bodies of French expatriates across West Africa and elsewhere.”