By Laurent Prieur
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is "out of danger" and will remain at the helm of Mauritania while he recovers in France after being shot at a soldiers' checkpoint in what he said was an accident, the information minister said on Tuesday.
The government initially said he had been only "lightly wounded", although sources have said he was shot in the back during the incident, details of which remain sketchy.
The shooting late on Saturday set the coup-prone northwest African country on edge and the president appealed to Mauritanians to keep calm in a televised message from his hospital bed before he was flown out for further treatment.
"We are not at all concerned about the situation. The president is out of danger and he is being looked after in a specialized hospital and we hope he will soon return," Information Minister Hamdi Ould Mahjoub told Reuters by phone.
"The government under the authority of the prime minister continues to work normally, as when the president is travelling abroad. There is no power vacuum and the prime minister is coordinating with him," Mahjoub said.
Mauritanian state news agency AMI described his condition as "improving" and said he did not need further surgery. He underwent surgery in Nouakchott before being flown to France.
Abdel Aziz was elected in 2009 after seizing power a year earlier in a coup that cut short the rule of Mauritania's first democratically elected president.
While the country, an ally to the West against al Qaeda, has been stable politically since Abdel Aziz seized power, it lies on the fringes of the Sahara Desert where Islamist gunmen hold increasing sway.
Several sources, including from the country's security services and the president's office, have told Reuters that Abdel Aziz was driving towards the nation's capital with a family member when the shooting occurred on Saturday evening.
Like most of the country's elite, Abdel Aziz spent the weekend out of the capital, at his residence in the Inchiri region, about 150 km northeast of Nouakchott.
Sources said the president, who often prefers to use limited or no escorts during such trips, was at the wheel of a powerful four-wheel drive vehicle speeding towards the capital.
"As nightfall was approaching, the president failed to slow down at a checkpoint. An officer at the checkpoint chased after the vehicle," one of the sources said, declining to be named.
"The president's vehicle was treated as suspicious because it was unmarked. It did not have escorts or guards, refused to stop and was driving at high speed towards the capital."
"The officer fired at the vehicle, a bullet hit the president in the back and came out through his abdomen," the source said.
(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Alison Williams)