Al-Qaeda attacks Mauritania army base
Hademine Ould Sadi
Noukchott - Mauritanian soldiers patrolled the town of Bassiknou on Wednesday after al-Qaeda-linked extremists attacked a nearby army base which houses an anti-terrorist unit, a military source said.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) launched the raid ten days after one of its camps was destroyed in a raid by the Mauritanian army in western Mali, as it sought to flush out extremists in the desert region.
A military source speaking on condition of anonymity said soldiers were keeping watch around the town in the extreme south of the country, ready against any eventuality.
The area was rocked by gunfire and explosions as the army, backed by military aircraft, battled AQIM militants in a counter-attack which lasted "less than an hour".
"The army riposte was strong and effective, causing 20 deaths among the assailants. Ten were taken prisoner and at least three vehicles were destroyed," the military source said.
Soldiers, assisted by military aircraft, then pursued those who had fled, into Mali. It was not yet known whether they had made any arrests.
AQIM on Wednesday denied the death toll reported by the Mauritanian army, saying only two of its followers had been killed.
"The mujahedeen lost two of their fighters: Algerian Eness Abou Fatima Alazairi and Abdel Halim Al Azawadi from northern Mali," an AQIM spokesperson told the private Nouakchott news agency, which often publishes AQIM statements.
The spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity, said AQIM had managed to recover the body of the Malian, but the other was left "on the battlefield."
Others who took part in the attack had "arrived back at their bases safe and sound", he said.
At least four Mauritanian soldiers were injured, said a source at the Bassiknou hospital where they were admitted.
On June 24, the Mauritanian army destroyed an AQIM base during a raid in the Wagadou forest of northwestern Mali.
The military said the base had housed heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons which posed a threat to the country, and reported the deaths of 15 AQIM members and two Mauritanian soldiers.
On Monday, AQIM released a statement saying at least 20 Mauritanian soldiers were killed and 12 army vehicles destroyed in the raid.
AQIM once again accused Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of fighting "a proxy war on behalf of France", urging Mauritanians to denounce this, learn from their losses "and save themselves from a war which is not theirs".
AQIM has bases in northern Mali from where it carries out armed attacks and kidnappings in the Sahel desert region where the group is also involved in arms and drugs trafficking.
Mali and Mauritania are among the countries hardest-hit by AQIM activities, along with Niger and Algeria, where the organisation has its roots. The nations work closely together in efforts to crack down on the organisation.
Since July 2010, Mauritania has carried out military operations on AQIM camps in Mali.
AQIM is holding four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in September 2010 as well as an Italian woman taken hostage in Algeria in February.
It has demanded that French President Nicolas Sarkozy withdraw his troops from Afghanistan as a condition for their release.
Mali has called for a regional push to train up to 75 000 troops within the next 18 months to combat extremists in the Sahel desert region.