NOUAKCHOTT — Mauritanian police have arrested 56 people, including 13 foreigners, in Nouakchott during clashes over a census between the security forces and young blacks, the interior ministry said Friday.
In a statement sent to AFP, the ministry said that the arrested foreigners "had a mission of organising the perpetrators of acts of vandalism and destruction of the property of citizens." It did not give their nationality.
"Privately owned cars were burned and the windows of other cars were smashed," the statement said, adding that "these acts of sabotage are unacceptable in a law-abiding state."
"If it hadn't been for the vigilance of the security forces, the damage would have been worse. The violence nearly reached domestic gas outlets and petrol stations," the communique added.
The clashes on Thursday pitted the police against youths from the black minority who believe a census under way in the northwest African country is "racist" and "discriminatory." They argue that Negro-Mauritanians, mainly from the south, will be treated as second-class citizens.
The government of the largely Arabic-speaking nation has stated that it is trying to give the country a modern and accurate biometric census as a step on the way to reforms.
The clashes in the capital came two days after the death in the southern town of Maghama of a demonstrator hit by a bullet when paramilitary police dispersed a demonstration organised by the movement Don't Touch My Nationality.
The protest movement against the census, which began in May, has spread in the past two weeks and left about 15 people injured in towns along the valley of the Senegal river on Mauritania's southern border, according to human rights groups.
Some black people in the country of three million fear that the poll is biased because census agents, who are mostly Moors, ask questions they cannot answer and demand to see administrative papers it is almost impossible to produce, like the death certificate of great-grandparents.
"How can you understand other than the fact that we are being targeted by this census when the commission of inquiry for instance asks a Negro-Mauritanian to prove his 'Mauritanian-ness' by talking in Hassanya (a Moorish dialect) or reciting part of the Koran?" asked Dia Gando, an activist with Don't Touch My Nationality in Kaedi, a mainly black town in the river valley.
Gando said he feared the census would lead to deportations, as happened in 1989-90, when tens of thousands fled to neighbouring Senegal and Mali in the wake of repression by a military regime.
But the civilian authorities have dismissed such fears.
The census operation will "exclude nobody and will finish, in the end, by giving full rights to all citizens, without prejudice," Rabih Rabbou, the director responsible for civic status, told AFP.
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