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Mauritanians Doubt Existence of CIA Prisons in Their Country

Many Mauritanians says they do not believe claims made by an American journalist, and denied by their government, that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency maintains secret interrogation cells in their country. Many also say they do not support military cooperation with the United States. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's West Africa bureau in Dakar.

The affair began with a tiny mention in a long article in an American magazine, The New Yorker. The author says a senior intelligence official, unnamed, told him the United States had opened a new detainee center in Mauritania in late 2005 to house and interrogate terrorism suspects.

The claim has been reprinted in Mauritanian media. It has caused a huge reaction there.

Local journalist Salem Bokari says some people believe the claims, but the vast majority is extremely skeptical.

But he says people want a government investigation to find out whether or not they are true.

On Friday, before the National Assembly, Mauritania's justice minister formally denied the existence of any secret U.S. prisons in the country. The government has said its relationship with the U.S. military is limited to training and information sharing.

Bokari says most Mauritanians hope the relationship stays minimal.

He says Mauritanians do not support the government of President George Bush, because they feel he has not done much for the third world and for Muslims around the world.

But Mauritania has historically had a very close relationship with the United States, says David Hartwell, an editor at Jane's Country Risk magazine.

"They have had a very good relationship certainly since the September 11th attacks, but even before that when Maaouya Ould Taya was in power. He set out on a very pro-Western course, flying in the face, perhaps, of other Arab countries," said Hartwell.

Mauritania, situated where the Sahel meets the Sahara desert, is populated both by Arabs and black Africans. Authoritarian former president Maaouya Ould Taya ruled Mauritania for two decades before a military junta overthrew him in 2005. Civilian rule was reinstated this year, after elections widely hailed by the international community.

The new government is expected to re-evaluate foreign relations but not to make drastic changes.

Hartwell says Mauritania is only one of several countries that non-governmental organizations and journalists have accused of allowing secret CIA interrogations. They allege the United States operates prisons in countries whose policies on prisoner interrogation and human rights are more lax.

Hartwell says Mauritania could be a possible location for such a prison.

"I think certainly up until the reinstitution of civilian government, there were certain shadowy aspects to Mauritania. It is a country where not a lot of people know what goes on, frankly. It is far enough below the radar of a lot of countries, so from that perspective Mauritania does present itself as an attractive location for this type of facility," said Hartwell.

But he says other countries in the region have traditionally worked more directly with the United States and would be more likely locations for such prisons.