NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania – Government forces appeared to regain control of the capital of this Arab-led West African country Monday after rebellious soldiers launched a coup attempt against Mauritania (search)'s pro-Western leader.
Silence fell across the city after gunbattles and explosions, which erupted for a second day early Monday, subsided around midday.
Government roadblocks sprang up overnight in otherwise deserted streets near the presidential palace and state-radio headquarters — which coup forces earlier had claimed were under their control.
Hundreds of government supporters spilled into downtown shouting, "We have won, we have won."
Others were less optimistic.
"If the coup fails, it's a catastrophe," said one young man, Sid Ahmed Ould Ali. "If it doesn't fail, it's still a catastrophe."
President Maaouya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya's whereabouts remained unknown, though government officials said he was in a secure location directing efforts to restore order. State radio and television stations were not broadcasting.
The uprising came after a government crackdown on Islamic activists, launched with the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Nouakchott (search) residents awoke early Sunday to heavy explosions, which continued throughout the day. While fighting dwindled overnight, fresh explosions rocked the city early Monday.
"I have decided to lock everyone inside, all members of my family, because we are too scared to go out," said one man reached by telephone, too afraid to give his name. "We are hearing gunshots at this very moment."
There was heavy fighting around the presidential palace and nearby radio station, where loyalist soldiers and paramilitary police traded gun and tank fire with Kalashnikov-toting insurgents.
Residents in the area said they could not distinguish between the two sides because they were in the same uniform.
There were also explosions near a military base, in the southern part of the city, and around the international airport, on the eastern outskirts of town.
Army Chief of Staff Mohammed Lamine Ould N'Deyane was killed during the fighting, military sources said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity. The circumstances were not immediately clear.
Staff at the city's main hospital said they had received the bodies of at least three soldiers and treated 16 others for gunshot wounds. Many civilians were injured, they said Sunday.
Ambulances crisscrossed the city center, even as fighting raged. State radio and television were off the air, and the international airport was closed.
The Arab satellite television station Al-Jazeera (search) said the coup appeared to be led by officers recently dismissed from the army and others angered by the government's campaign against Islamic extremism.
Military officials said coup forces controlled Nouackchott's tank division, based in the city's southern neighborhood of Arafat. The division's strength wasn't known.
The government crackdown initially tried to quell Islamic shows of support for Iraq. Dozens of Islamic leaders were arrested last month for allegedly using mosques to recruit young men as fighters. At least 32 were freed Sunday when rebel soldiers released prisoners from two jails, opposition officials said.
Mauritania's Arab-led government has tried to balance a strongly Islamic nation with Westward looking foreign policy.
After a bitter falling out with ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Ould Taya traded a one-time alliance with Iraq for improved relations with Israel. Mauritania is one of only three Arab nations to hold diplomatic relations with Israel.
Ould Taya himself came to power in a 1984 military coup, and was elected president in 1992 and 1997 voting widely viewed as flawed.
Mauritania — a Sahara Desert country of 2.5 million people — is among the world's 30 poorest nations.