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Official: Mauritanian, Mali troops attack alleged al Qaeda base camp

From Mohamed Yahya Abdel Wedoud, For CNN
  • Troops from Mauritania and Mali launch a joint operation in Mali's Wagadou Forest
  • The target is a camp for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Mauritanian army officials say
  • A Mauritanian official says the camp is "destroyed" after a "well-planned" operation
  • Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a growing threat in north Africa, analysts say

Nouakchott, Mauritania (CNN) -- Mauritanian special forces joined troops from Mali in launching an offensive targeting what they called an al Qaeda base camp, Mauritanian army officials said Sunday.

Col. Brahim Vall Ould Cheibani said the operation aimed against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African arm of the terrorist network, had been "well planned." He said the forces from the two African nations, which were divided into two wings, "destroyed" the terror organization's "base camp."

"We were not lured into this fight, we acted knowingly," Cheibani told reporters. "We went searching for the enemy to destroy it."

According to Mauritanian army officials, 15 al Qaeda militants were killed in the offensive. Two Mauritanian soldiers were killed and another five were injured.

The fighting occurred about 70 kilometers (45 miles) across the Mauritanian border in Mali's Wagadou Forest, Mauritanian army spokesman Col. Teyib Ould Brahim said. It was launched after Mauritanian military leaders decided "to sweep the area, where a well-protected armed camp threatened the security of our country," according to the spokesman.

The military operation is ongoing, Brahim said late Sunday.

Mauritanian soldiers, at times with assistance from France's government and others, have gone after alleged terrorists numerous times in recent years. That includes an incident in July, in which Mauritanian soldiers killed six militants near the Mali border, Interior Minister Mohammed Ould Boilil said at the time.

Days later, in late July, a man claiming to be Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, the head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, said in a video that the terrorist group had captured and executed 78-year-old French movie director Michel Germaneau in retaliation.

The organization has voiced its intention to attack Western targets and taken responsibility for several terrorist attacks in recent years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The think tank claims that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, born and once focused in Algeria, has broadened its scope to become "more global, sophisticated and better-financed." Its leaders are mainly Algerian, while its foot soldiers increasingly come from the Sahel region of Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

In January, the Council of the European Union warned of "the growing threat in the region (of north and west Africa) from organized crime and terrorist networks, in particular al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb."

Chad President Idriss Derby told the magazine Jeune Afrique earlier this year that the al Qaeda branch has become even more of a threat of late. He said militants have taken advantage of the Libya unrest and seized surface-to-air missiles from military stockpiles in rebel-held areas.

"Al Qaeda in Maghreb is on the way to becoming a veritable army, the best equipped in the region," Derby said.

U.S. military officials have not publicly weighed in on the claim from Derby, who didn't offer any evidence. A more plausible scenario, according to New America Foundation researcher Andrew Lebovich, is that al Qaeda's significant revenues from kidnapping, drug smuggling and human trafficking have given it money to buy such weaponry on the black market.

CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank contributed to this report.