By Jemal Oumar
Mauritania held extensive military exercises last week outside the city of Bassiknou, located along the Malian border.
The operations were part of efforts to step up border surveillance and prevent the infiltration of terrorists and smugglers, Mauritania’s Aray al-Mostenir reported May 22nd, noting that the country’s security forces were placed on high alert.
The website stated that a heavy artillery bombardment could be heard outside Bassiknou for two days. Meanwhile, military aircraft carried out sorties over the area and bombed virtual moving targets as part of a training drill supervised by French experts.
The Mauritanian army conducted reconnaissance sorties over the Wagadou Forest and the area where most of the past armed confrontations with al-Qaeda and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa took place.
Bassiknou resident Abdallah Ould Sidi confirmed the news of the border drills an interview with Magharebia, saying that “heavy artillery bombardment sounds were heard two days ago at about 8:30 PM coming from the headquarters of the Mauritanian military barracks, which are based a few kilometres away from the city.”
“It was said around the city that the goal of this bombardment was just to test the range and power of a new group of artillery that the military units have recently obtained,” Ould Sidi said.
“It might have been actually related to military drills conducted in anticipation of a possible danger in that area which over the past two years has become liable for infiltrations by terrorist groups that have a strong presence in Azawad following the months-long absence of Mali’s army,” he added.
In his turn, journalist Rajel Ould Oumar, who is present in the border area between Nema and Bassiknou, told Magharebia that he heard gunfire outside Bassiknou that scared residents. “However, such sounds were just tests of new military equipment, especially some missiles that anti-terrorist units in the region received,” he said.
“This operation coincided with some military drills and exercises by the military forces that are based in the city of Nema; something that imparted more of a security and military dimension to these events not known in previous days,” Ould Oumar added.
The military manoeuvres were part of a heightened alert against possible moves by al-Qaeda militants in search of a new safe haven after Touareg groups reached an agreement to expel the extremists from the Azawad region, according to Ould Oumar.
“This is in addition to fears about the infiltration of smuggling gangs and silent terrorist cells among Azawad refugees in camps on Mauritanian soil,” he said.
Ould Oumar said the stepped up border security began two months ago, with increased co-ordination among the gendarme, police, customs and military units.
Analyst Bashir Ould Babanah said that the toughest security challenge facing Mauritania for the time being lies in its ability to control an open border strip thousands of kilometres long with Mali, especially as the border populations overlap in a way that makes it difficult to monitor the infiltration of terrorists from both sides.
“That vast border area has over the years represented an economic attraction region and has seen uncontrolled trade vitality,” he added. “Terrorists, arms dealers and smugglers of contraband have benefited from such a situation,” he said.
For his part, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, Speaker of Mauritania’s National Assembly, said during a May 23rd television interview that “the Mauritanian authorities have to take necessary measures and firm steps towards the explosive security situation in Mali, especially in the north which is located on the border and controlled by the terrorists.”
“I’ve warned the Mauritanian president of the dangerous situation in Mali and asked him to take the necessary measures to avoid its reflections on Mauritania,” he added.