Mauritanian Presidential Guard Attempts Coup

Presidential guard troops in Mauritania's (search) capital took control of the national radio and television stations Wednesday and seized a building housing the army chief of staff headquarters while the president was out of the country, witnesses said.

Heavily armed soldiers deployed in force around the presidential palace, ministries and other strategic buildings and on the streets of the capital Nouakchott, blocking key roads and several entrances to the city, an Associated Press reporter on the scene said.

Half a dozen shots from a heavy gun were heard at midmorning but it was not immediately clear where they came from and no other violence was reported.

The presidential guard troops cut state media broadcasts.

It was not immediately clear whether the moves signaled a coup attempt was under way.

President Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Taya (search), who has survived several coup attempts during his 20-year reign, left the country Monday to travel to Saudi Arabia (search) for King Fahd's funeral.

Cabinet ministers and army officials either could not be reached or refused to comment.

Mohamed Ali, a father of eight who lives near the presidency, was among those fleeing the city center.

"I'm afraid for my family," he said. "I'll come back when things are back to normal."

Only one coup attempt against Taya in 2003 made it past the planning stage, marked by several days of street fighting in the capital.

Since then, Taya has cracked down ruthlessly against opponents, including members of Islamist groups and army soldiers, jailing scores of people accused of plotting to overthrow him.

His government has also accused opponents of training with al-Qaida linked insurgents in Algeria.

Mauritania, a sparsely populated nation of 3 million on the northwest edge of Africa, is strictly regulated by Taya, who took power in a 1984 military coup and tried to legitimize his rule in the 1990s through elections the opposition says were fraudulent.

Islamist leaders in Mauritania have staunchly opposed Taya, criticizing him for building close ties with Israel. Mauritania, an Arab-dominated West African nation straddling black and Arab Africa, opened full diplomatic relations with Israel in the 1990s despite widespread objections at home.