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In Senegal and Mauritania, Ethnic Conflict Rages Amid Talk of War

June 03, 1989|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

This has been done mainly by instituting quotas--now 20%--on the number of black Africans allowed to serve in government, and by such other acts as introducing Arabic as an official language along with French. Arabic is spoken by many white Moors but not by many black Africans.

Mauritania is viewed by the Senegalese and other black Africans as one of the desert buffer states between them and Arab North Africa. As a result, many see the recent events here in the context of an Arab push against black Africa.

"The Mauritanian regime has an objective," said the refugee chemist Modiane, who is housed along with 2,700 other black Africans expelled from Mauritania in Quonset hut warehouses at Camp Oakam. "It is the conquest of political, economic and cultural lives. To do this they must first expel the black African intellectuals, who are capable of stopping them from realizing their design."

The Mauritanian government recently added fuel to this fear of Arabization by joining Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia in a new alliance of North African countries, the Union of the Great Arab Maghreb.

"The feeling here in Senegal," a Western diplomat said, "is that Mauritanians are moving more and more toward the Arabization of their country--that they are becoming more and more a community of the Maghreb."

However, some political observers here feel that the true root of the conflict between the two formerly friendly countries is competition for land in the Senegal River Valley, which has been opened to irrigation by construction of two dams at a cost of $1 billion. One of the dams is in the adjacent country of Mali; the other at Djama on the Senegal-Mauritania border.

The two dams have assumed great significance in the political life of Senegal and Mauritania and have created a catchword-- apres barrage (after the dam)--that describes today's political setting. But the dams, rather than enhancing relations between the two countries, have raised the stakes in the conflict.

Speaking of the competition for land, a Western diplomat said: "The issue is even more complicated because traditionally Senegalese farmers have worked on the Mauritanian side of the river.

Diouf Aided by War Talk

In Senegal, which has enjoyed a measure of democratic freedom rare among African states, internal political considerations have contributed to the atmosphere of war. The war talk has rallied support behind President Diouf, who was reelected last year and has been at the center of what one observer described as "more than a year of contentious political debate including lots of street demonstrations."

Among other things, the Diouf government has been accused of being too soft with Mauritania.

"War would be popular here, from the common man to the highest level of government," a Western diplomat observed.

But waging war would be difficult for both sides.

Senegal, the more populous of the two with 6.7 million people, is estimated to have 10,000 men under arms but traditionally has depended for protection on 2,000 French soldiers in the country. Mauritania, with its 2 million people, is much larger in terms of territory and less dependent on the French. Its army's strength is estimated at 14,000.

Neither country has a strong air force nor the equipment needed to cross the Senegal River without huge losses. As a result, many observers doubt that the recent hostilities will erupt into full-scale war. More likely, they say, are continued skirmishes along the river.

The incident that sparked the recent violence and population flight took place April 9 in Diawara, a small river town near Bakel in eastern Senegal. According to Senegalese officials, two Senegalese were shot and killed by Mauritanian border guards. The Mauritanians say the deaths were the result of tribal fighting in the area.

Possibly coincidentally, Senegalese newspapers began publishing detailed reports of conflicts along the border, including the jailing of some tribesmen by Mauritanian officials. Traditionally, Senegalese have farmed on both sides of the river and there has always been some conflict. But until recently little of this had been reported in the press.

After the April 9 killings, several Mauritanian shops were attacked in Dakar. About 80% of the grocery stores and other small shops in Dakar were owned at that time by Mauritanians who sold on credit and slept in their stores to be available to customers at all hours.

After the attacks in Dakar, counterattacks were undertaken against black Africans in Mauritania. Matters escalated until both governments were forced to impose a curfew. On the Senegalese side, there were at least 70 deaths, mostly in the white Moor communities. In Mauritania, the death toll was believed to be higher--more than 200, almost all of them African blacks.

Airlifted Out

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