NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Three suspected al Qaeda militants killed when their vehicle exploded during a gunfight with Mauritanian soldiers Wednesday were planning to attack the French embassy and an army base, the government said.
The vehicle was one of three that crossed into the West African country from Mali last weekend and was pursued through the desert by Mauritanian soldiers.
Mauritanian security forces captured one vehicle containing 1.5 metric tons of explosives Tuesday, arresting a militant, and a second exploded during a gun battle Wednesday on the outskirts of the capital, Nouakchott. A third, believed to be a support vehicle, escaped.
“According to the man we captured, the convoy had two targets. There was the army base in Nouakchott but also the French embassy,” Defense Minister Hamadi Ould Hamadi told journalists.
Hamadi confirmed earlier reports from a security official that three men suspected to be from al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM were killed in the explosion.
Eight soldiers were wounded in the blast, which occurred after an exchange of fire in the early hours, he said.
Mauritania is among several countries in the Sahara region where al Qaeda-linked fighters have raised their profile with a series of attacks and kidnappings.
The gunmen have switched from abducting Westerners in remote locations and holding them for ransom to carrying out attacks in more urban areas.
AQIM grew out of the militant Salafist movement in Algeria and has moved south where it is taking advantage of the vast and lawless desert regions of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
Suspected AQIM fighters killed four French tourists in Mauritania in 2007 and Mauritania’s army said last year it foiled a car bomb attack on a military base in Nema.
AQIM has claimed responsibility for the abduction of two Frenchmen found dead after an unsuccessful rescue attempt in Niger last month and is believed to be holding five other French nationals kidnapped in Niger last year.
Countries in the region have been trying to coordinate military efforts to counter the growing threat but rivalries and competing interests have hampered cooperation.
Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Andrew Dobbie