Four jihadists have escaped from prison in Mauritaniafter a shootout left two guards dead, the interior ministry said Monday, a rare event in a nation spared the insurgency sweeping through the Sahel.
"The National Guard has tightened its control over the prison and immediately started tracking down the fugitives," the ministry said in a statement to the official news agency.
Two other guards were lightly wounded, it said. The identities of the escaped prisoners were not revealed.
According to a military official, two of the prisoners had been sentenced to death, while the others were awaiting trial for membership of a terrorist organisation.
The official, asking not to be named, said their vehicle had been found northeast of the capital Nouakchott, site of the central prison.
The death penalty has not been enforced in Mauritania since 1987.
With a population of 4.5 million, Mauritania has been spared jihadist attacks since 2011, despite sharing a border with Mali, from where an insurgency that began in 2012 has spread across the region.
The absence of attacks has fuelled suggestions a secret non-aggression pact exists between Nouakchott and the jihadists.
Washington claimed to have found documents in 2011, in the Pakistani cache where former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed, listing an attempt at rapprochement between the group and the Mauritanian government in 2010.
The government refutes this.
Mauritania was regularly targeted in the 2000s, including attacks and kidnappings.
In 2005, Islamist groups expanded in Algeria, a neighbour to the north and Mauritania began to come under attack.
In 2008, the former head of presidential security, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, took power and a year later was elected president.
Any qualms that Western countries had about his rise were set aside.
Battle of minds
Given the numbers of Mauritanians in emerging rebel groups in northern Mali, the sense was "the jihadist threat could spread to Mauritania", a French expert told AFP in 2020.
Abdel Aziz, who stepped down in 2019, is now on trial for abuse of office, influence peddling, money laundering and illicit enrichment.
Under his regime, France and the United States sent instructors to support anti-terrorist units and strengthen Mauritanian intelligence.
The Mauritanians invested in training and retaining recruits. Military spending increased, providing better equipment, pay and conditions for soldiers.
And the border has been tightly policed, whereas in other Sahel countries, porous borders are a notorious weak point.
Nouakchott also launched a battle of the minds to deter vulnerable young people from joining the jihadists.
In 2010 a dialogue between leading Muslim scholars and 70 jailed jihadists led to around 50 of them repenting.
More than 500 imams were recruited and youngsters offered vocational training after leaving Islamic schools, giving them a chance to earn a living.
In an effort to spur economic activity, authorities also spearheaded the creation of new towns in the desert.
In other Sahel countries, poverty and the vacuum of the state have provided the jihadists with opportunities.