updated 8/11/2004 2:52:15 PM ET 2004-08-11T18:52:15

U.S. ally Mauritania arrested a prominent Islamic opposition figure Wednesday, two days after the government said it had foiled an alleged army-led coup plot linked to a threat last month by extremists to strike Mauritania “with an iron fist” over its ties with Israel.

Police arrested prominent Islamist Mohamed Jemil Ould Mansour, secretary-general of an opposition coalition that includes Islamists. Ruling party officials have blamed army officers, civilians and Islamist extremists in the alleged plot to topple the 20-year-old regime of President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya.

Official accounts said the plotters were planning to assassinate Taya as he left the country Saturday for France. They said simultaneous bombings were planned to sow disarray.

Some skepticism
Opposition politicians, Islamic leaders and some Western diplomats were skeptical about the alleged plot. Some said the claims of a plot were simply a pretext by Taya’s government to crack down harder on the opposition in the oil-rich nation on the western edge of the Sahara. Authorities have made an unspecified number of arrests.

Opposition politician Salek Sidi Mahmoud on Wednesday called the plot “very probably a fabrication.”

The government “is trying to liquidate those officers who maybe are hostile to the economic, political and social disasters in Mauritania,” he said.

Taya has allied himself with the United States in the war on terror, a dramatic change from 1991 when he condemned the U.S.-led coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein’s soldiers from Kuwait in the Gulf War.

Ties to Israel
In the 1990s, he made his overwhelmingly Islamic country one of only three in the 22-nation Arab League to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Israeli alliance has angered many in the Arab-dominated nation. Anger increased last month when Taya accepted the accreditation of Israel’s new ambassador, Boaz Bismut, in a ceremony at the presidential palace.

A July 29 Internet threat appeared aimed at that ceremony. The threat was posted in the name of Jamaat al-Tawhid al-Islamiya -Omar el-Mukhtar Brigade.

“We will strike with an iron hand all the traitor Arab governments who deal with the Zionists in the open or secretly,” the statement said.

The warning specifically mentioned Libya and Mauritania.

Official sees threads
Defense Minister Baba Ould Sidi on Tuesday tied that threat to the alleged coup plot and to the emergence of an opposition coalition.

“What draws our attention is the coincidence between this attempted coup d’etat, the creation of the Patriotic Alliance and also the threats of a terrorist group of Zarqawi to strike at Mauritania,” Ould Sidi told reporters.

He was referring to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and to a newly emerged Mauritanian opposition coalition, based in neighboring Senegal.

Taya, who seized power in a 1984 coup, withstood a June 2003 coup attempt that triggered days of fighting in the capital. Members of his ruling party blamed the same civilians and Islamic extremists involved in that earlier plot with the latest alleged plan.

Mauritania’s capital remained calm and security appeared increased only at the main electricity plant.

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