Worker protests in Zouerate, Mauritania, escalated into violent clashes and confrontations Monday after days of otherwise peaceful protests, which were brutally repressed by police using tear gas and other riot control tactics. Several protesters were injured and arrests were made, including the local trade union leader. Later reports mentioned five gendarmes receiving treatment for minor injuries.
The Governor was out of commission after his residence was besieged and part of the administrative offices caught fire. The blaze started after a large tent attached to the building was burned, along with some vehicles and hastily constructed barricades. The regional radio station offices were also reportedly subjected to an arson attack. Tuesday, the Interior Minister was flown to the scene by helicopter from Atar, and the army was sent in to quell the protests in response to a distress call from the governor.
Mauritania’s president Aziz has been out of the country for 16 days after travelling to Europe to attend a fundraising conference for the conflict in Mali. From there Aziz went to Paris, where he was thought to be receiving treatment related to the incident in October last year, where he was injured in a claimed accidental shooting. Apart from a couple of diplomatic telegrams there has been no further word from him.
The workers have been protesting for a while now, staging strikes and sit-ins as well as marches. A group of workers also made a march to the capital to draw attention to their demands, which remain unmet.
Wednesday 29 May is the anniversary of another series of protests from 1968, started by workers of the old Zouerate mining company “Miverma”, which ended in a bloody massacre. Daily protests started early and continued late into the night, and were joined by other citizens on that final, fateful day. In the largest protest in Zouerate’s history, some 6000 people surged onto the street around the hospital where injured protesters had been taken. Gendarmes, under orders of the government, opened fire on the protesters leaving 8 dead and 24 injured. Given the current situation and the significance of this anniversary, we might expect even more tension and unrest tomorrow.