Mauritania's army conducted an air raid to prevent a planned attack by al-Qaida-linked insurgents Thursday in a forest just across the border in Mali, where the group has a cell, the Mauritanian ministry of defense said.
"The national army were able to find terrorist elements inside the Wagadou Forest that were readying for an attack on our territory," the ministry's statement said Thursday. "Our forces this morning launched preventative aerial strikes against the enemy in order to destroy them."
A colonel involved in the raid, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with military protocol, said that Mauritania sent planes to circle above the Wagadou Forest, an enormous swath of vegetation twice the size of Los Angeles. Once above the forest they zeroed in on cars loaded with explosives, he said.
"The planes belonging to the Mauritanian military attacked a grouping of terrorists this morning in the Wagadou Forest who were readying for an incursion into Mauritania," the colonel said on Thursday. "At least two vehicles loaded to the hilt with terrorists and explosives were destroyed. The Mauritanian army is now on the ground to evaluate the number of casualties on the enemy side," he said.
The cell known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is led by Algerian terrorists who joined forces with al-Qaida in 2006. Since then, the terror group's North African branch has established bases in at least three remote corners of Mali, including the Wagadou Forest, where villagers first saw them in the spring of 2010. They have used these bases to train fighters and prepare for suicide attacks in Mauritania, as well as Algeria.
The raid is the second since a June 24 offensive in which Mauritanian troops backed by Malian foot soldiers invaded the same forest, in an attack that was supposed to have flushed out the cell. But soon after, herders taking their animals to graze in the forest say they saw the bearded extremists return in new pickup trucks mounted with canons.
Mali has become a haven for the group, say experts and members of the country's parliament, in part because the nation's porous borders are not patrolled but also because its leaders have been afraid to confront the threat. Mauritania began leading cross-border raids in an effort to take out the fighters before they succeeded in carrying out attacks on Mauritanian military and government installations.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.