The cat-and-mouse game across the West African nation's vast desert areas is the first big security test for Mauritania's new military government, which seized power in an Aug. 6 coup that overthrew the country's first democratically elected president.
The US has offered funds and training to Mauritania to help it fight the Al Qaeda-linked group, but cut such aid after the coup.
Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted a Mauritanian lawmaker as saying the military was confident it would catch the attackers by blocking desert transit points and using air reconnaissance.
While Mauritanian security sources originally said 12 soldiers had been killed in the ambush, they now say the men are likely hostages, AFP reported the lawmaker as saying:
"The 12 men, including a captain, are in the hands of the criminals who would undoubtedly try to use them as cover in their escape and for possible ransom demands," [the lawmaker] said.
Experts say the attackers are likely only to be able to travel at night and would have needed at least five days to reach the border with Algeria or Mali.
If that's correct, the militants would not be able to reach the border until Saturday at the earliest.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has claimed responsibility for killing 15 Mauritanian soldiers in a 2005 raid, killing four soldiers and four French tourists in December 2007, and attacking the Israeli Embassy in Mauritania last February.
After the Aug. 6 coup, the group called for a full-scale "holy war" to turn Mauritania – seen as a US ally in the global war on terror – into an Islamic state.
The latest ambush has revived fears that Al Qaeda's North Africa branch, which has carried out bloody bomb attacks in the Maghreb, may be extending its operations further southwards into sub-Saharan Africa, which is a source of crude oil to the West.
Western donors like the United States and Europe, which have condemned the coup against Abdallahi, had been supporting the civilian official Mauritanian president
in his efforts to tackle what appeared to be a growing threat of Islamic extremist violence.
IRIN, a United Nations information network, reported that the European Union, US government, and The World Bank has cut off or threatened to stop US$500 million in non-humanitarian aid to Mauritania in protest of the Aug. 6 military coup. Some of those funds were earmarked for counterterrorism and military training to help Mauritania fight the militants.
Mr. Guitta argued that the Mauritanian military ousted the country's president, Sheikh Sidi Ould Abdallahi, in part because they saw him as too soft on Islamic terrorists. He wrote that many Mauritanians blamed Abdallahi for allowing the country's security situation to deteriorate from "bad to worse."
One example of Abdallahi's misguided policies: releasing Islamic militants from prison. According to Guitta, several well-known militants freed by Abdallahi were later linked to the December 2007 killings of the four French tourists.
Guitta observed that the US and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb both condemned the August coup, but for sharply different reasons.
Weirdly enough, at about the same time, the U.S. and France both forcefully condemned the coup, calling the new regime illegitimate and suspended their non-humanitarian help, which actually included financial support to fight the war against radical Islam.
The fact that al-Qaida and some Western nations agree over the new Mauritanian regime should make the U.S. and French diplomacy review their troubling assessment of the situation. This all the more so that North Africa has become a very important battlefield for al-Qaida and that Mauritania, a vast and sparsely populated (three million), has always been the soft underbelly of the region.