DAKAR, Senegal — The president of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, was shot and wounded while returning home from a country weekend on Saturday evening in what his spokesman said Sunday was an accidental shooting by a nervous soldier.
That explanation was echoed by the official Mauritanian news agency on its Web site, and by the wounded president himself in a halting televised declaration on the state broadcaster from his military hospital bed, shortly before being flown to Paris for further treatment on Sunday.
But the shooting took place in a fraught regional context in which Mr. Abdel Aziz, a former general who seized power in a 2008 coup and was later elected, is one of the few leaders to have successfully fought Al Qaeda’s local franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, on the battlefield. The group, which now controls northern Mali, has previously declared the Mauritanian president a sworn enemy.
In addition, Mr. Abdel Aziz presides over a desert nation of chronic political instability, two coups d’état since 2005 and armed vigilance against the Al Qaeda faction. The militant group, in turn, is now under pressure as nations in West Africa have vowed to dislodge it by force from Mali, a pledge given preliminary approval by the United Nations Security Council last week.
Those factors have already led some commentators on a widely followed Mauritanian news Web site, Cridem (Carrefour de la République Islamique de Mauritanie), to question the official version of Saturday’s shooting.
Still, the government on Sunday insisted that the shooting was the result of friendly fire and was neither a terrorist attack nor a coup attempt, an explanation supported by at least one prominent Mauritanian journalist.
The journalist, Isselmou Ould Moustapha, editor of the newspaper Tahalil, said Sunday by phone from the capital, Nouakchott: “The accidental explanation is the likeliest. The president himself is saying it. And the soldiers are very nervous. They live with the their fingers on the trigger.”
Mr. Abdel Aziz was driving on a track through the desert near Tweila, northeast of Nouakchott, when soldiers mistakenly opened fire on his unescorted vehicle, the communications minister, Hamdi Ould Mahjoub, said by telephone on Sunday. Mauritanian news Web sites reported that the president had been shot in the arm and that no vital organs had been hit. Mr. Abdel Aziz, 55, was returning to Nouakchott after one of his habitual weekend excursions in the wilderness, Mr. Mahjoub said, when he came on a military checkpoint, which are scattered throughout the country, ostensibly to counter the threat from Al Qaeda.
The president was driving the unmarked car, with one passenger, Mr. Mahjoub said, and there was no escort in the immediate vicinity. Mr. Abdel Aziz is known for sometimes driving himself around Nouakchott, and for occasionally wading into crowds with minimal security.
“He was shot at an army checkpoint,” Mr. Mahjoub said. The president was hit but his passenger was not, a circumstance that fueled more speculation on the Mauritanian Web sites that Mr. Abdel Aziz was targeted deliberately.
Mr. Mahjoub, the communications minister, insisted that that was not the case. “This was friendly fire, a mistake,” he said. “He’s used to driving out, himself, in an unmarked car.” The minister suggested that the president might have been driving fast, perhaps startling the soldiers at the checkpoint.
The Cridem site said two officers had already been detained for questioning, a claim that could not be immediately verified. It said that soldiers at the checkpoint had fired in the air to stop the vehicle, but that the president was engaged in conversation with his passenger — his cousin — and ignored the warning. The soldiers then opened fire on the vehicle, the Web site said.