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Mauritania president heads to Paris for treatment after 'accidental' shooting

NOUAKCHOTT -- Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz flew to Paris for medical treatment on Sunday after being wounded when soldiers “accidentally” shot at his convoy as he returned to the capital Nouakchott from a weekend retreat.

Ould Abdel Aziz appeared on television from his hospital bed before flying out of the country, telling Mauritanians that surgery carried out after Saturday's shooting had been a “success.”

“I want to reassure them about my health after this incident, which was committed in error by a military unit,” he said, looking pale but speaking with a normal voice.

“Thanks be to God, there is no problem,” added the president, who was joined at his bedside by his Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdhaf and top civilian and military figures.

The government also played down the shooting, saying 55-year-old Ould Abdel Aziz was only “slightly wounded” and that the soldiers had not realized it was the presidential convoy.

“This was an accidental shooting on the presidential convoy as it returned to Nouakchott. The army unit did not recognize the presidential convoy,” Communications Minister Hamdi Mahjoub said on national television.

However, a security source had earlier told AFP that the president, who has been in power in the impoverished northwest African nation since leading an August 2008 military coup, had been directly targeted.

The president was flown to Paris for medical treatment after undergoing the operation at a military hospital to remove a bullet, a security source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The source did not specify where the bullet had lodged but said none of his vital organs had been hit and “his life is not in danger.”

He is to be treated in a specialist hospital in the French capital.

Unconfirmed media reports in Nouakchott said variously that Abdel Aziz, who has in the past reportedly been targeted by al-Qaida's North African branch, had been hit in the arm and/or the abdomen.

A security source had said earlier that Abdel Aziz was hit in the arm by a bullet fired by an unknown gunman as he was driving from his weekend retreat in Tweila, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Atlantic coast capital.

The gunman in a car “directly targeted” the head of state, he added, without giving any indications as to the identity of the attacker or the motive.

Opposition lawmakers accuse Ould Abdel Aziz, a former general, of despotism and mismanagement in the largely desert nation.

They also charge that he has failed to heed commitments made in the Dakar accords that led to his election in 2009, a year after he seized power in a coup d'etat.

The opposition wants a transition government to take over from Abdel Aziz and find a way out of the crisis, dealing with issues such as unemployment, slavery and attacks on human rights.

Abdel Aziz, who headed the presidential guard before the coup, has insisted he will not resign, despite a series of opposition protests.

“I have no intention of leaving power because I think that in a democracy, change must be done through the ballot box,” Abdel Aziz said in August.

He has led a military campaign against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaida's franchise in north Africa.

He has been the subject of several failed assassination attempts by AQIM, according to sources.

AQIM, which stems from a group started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists, formally subscribed to Al-Qaeda's ideology in 2007, but after a string of high-profile attacks, the Algerian army managed to severely curtail its operations.

It has since been boosted by the turmoil in neighboring Mali that followed a coup there in March, with hard-line Islamists occupying the country's vast northern region.

Abdel Aziz's mandate as leader of the former French colony expires in 2014.

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