updated 6/5/2005 5:37:46 PM ET 2005-06-05T21:37:46

Algerian insurgents attacked an army base in this vast country’s northern desert, setting off a gunbattle that left at least 24 people dead, the defense minister said Sunday.

President Maaoya Sid’Ahmed Taya, who has survived several coup attempts during his 20-year reign, called an emergency meeting of his top military commanders late Sunday.

Those killed in the overnight assault in Mgheiti, near the nation’s borders with Algeria and Mali, included 15 Mauritanian soldiers and nine attackers, Defense Minister Baba Ould Sidi told reporters in the capital.

At least 17 other soldiers were wounded and two others were reported missing — including the unit’s chief, Sidi said, adding that 150 assailants took part in the attack.

Other army officials said military reinforcements were sent to the north, but no other details were available.

In recent months, Taya’s government has jailed scores of opponents, accusing them of organizing coup plots and setting up clandestine insurgent networks whose supporters have trained with the violent Salafist Group for Call and Combat insurgency in Algeria, which Western authorities link to the al-Qaida terror network.

The country’s opposition says ruling-party officials unfairly brand them terrorists to undermine their efforts to organize.

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