NOUAKCHOTT // Mauritanian Security forces opened fire on a car loaded with explosives early Wednesday as it attempted to speed into the capital, setting off an enormous explosion and killing three suspected al Qa'eda-linked terrorists, an official said.
The al Qa'eda affiliate claimed responsibility for the attempted attack in a telephone call to an Islamist website, Essirage.net. The caller, who identified himself as a spokesman for al Qa'eda's North Africa branch, said they were targeting Mauritania's president, Mohamemd Ould Abdel Azizm whose government has actively pursued members of the group.
Authorities had been tracking the suspicious vehicle and two others since Friday when they entered the country from northern Mali, Colonel Mohamemd Ould Ahmed told the Associated Press.
The Toyota Land Cruiser carrying more than a ton of explosives was headed for military and government buildings when security forces decided to shoot at it, the colonel said. An enormous explosion rocked the neighbourhood of Ryad at about 3am. nearly 10 kilometers from the city centre.
"The car was transporting three terrorists trying to infiltrate the capital by launching a kamikaze attack," said the colonel, who added that eight Mauritanian soldiers were wounded.
Once a peaceful nation perched on the edge of the vast Sahara desert, Mauritania has become a staging ground for al Qa'eda's North African franchise, which has bankrolled its operation by kidnapping foreigners for ransom across a wide swath of the Sahel region.
Col Ahmed said the two suspects who had been arrested on Tuesday after they abandoned an SUV full of explosives in the desert were suspected members of the group. Another suspect in the first car got away.
Security forces were still searching for the third vehicle, which was believed to be carrying water, gas and video equipment. Col Ahmed said that they were confident they would find and arrest the three suspects in that car.
Al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has its roots in an extremist Islamic group in Algeria that brokered an alliance with the al Qa'eda terror network in 2006. Since then, AQIM has kidnapped more than a dozen Europeans including tourists and aid workers, and with each abduction their tactics have become more bold.
They stormed a heavily guarded residential compound in northern Niger late last year, seizing five French hostages and two others. AQIM gunmen also grabbed two Frenchmen from a restaurant in Niger's capital last month. The men were found dead less than 24 hours later.
In Mauritania, AQIM has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks, including the killing in 2009 of an American, Christopher Ervin Leggett, 39, and the murder in 2007 of four French tourists picnicking on the side of a rural road.
President Aziz, a military general, led a coup in 2008. Among his criticisms of the democratically elected president that he ousted is that he had been soft on terrorism. Mr Aziz was later elected in multiparty elections in which he promised to contain al Qa'eda.
Dozens of suspected followers of the cell have been arrested and prosecuted since Mr Aziz took office and he created specialized units within the army dedicated solely to fighting al Qa'eda. Last year, the army led a controversial cross-border raid into northern Mali to destroy an AQIM base. The raid was executed with the help of the French military.
In the statement published on the Islamist website, the man identifying himself as an AQIM spokesman said the attack was a reaction to the new collaboration between Mauritania and France.
"The operation that was undertaken this morning was aimed at taking out Mauritanian President Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz in response to the fact that he has become an agent of France to whom he has opened his country in order to wage war against us," it said.