NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Thousands of Mauritanians lined the road from the airport Saturday to welcome back President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who went to France for five weeks of medical treatment after being accidentally shot in a friendly fire incident.
His return puts an end to speculation over the state of his health, as well as over the future of Mauritania. Analysts had warned that his extended departure could create the instability needed for another coup in this desert nation which has suffered six since the 1970s.
"At no moment did I fear a coup d'etat by the army .... because (our army) has better things to do than lead coup d'etats," Aziz told the French radio station Radio France International on Saturday morning. "I have total confidence in the Mauritanian military."
Formerly a general in the army, Aziz came to power himself in a 2008 coup, ousting the country's first, and only, democratically elected leader. His coup was widely denounced by the international community, but Aziz has since become a key ally of the West in the fight against terrorism in the Sahara. Mauritania has led raids across the border into Mali to root out fighters from al-Qaida's North African branch.
The 55-year-old leader waved to the crowd. Supporters had brought out giant posters of the president, as well as enormous banners, welcoming him home.
On Oct. 13, Aziz left the Mauritanian capital in a private, unmarked car for a drive in the desert. Aides later said that he had the habit of going out without his official convoy. He failed to stop at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Nouakchott, and guards opened fire, hitting him in the stomach. A spokesman told the Associated Press that the president drove himself to the capital's best hospital.
Before being airlifted to France the next day, Aziz invited reporters for a bedside interview inside his hospital room in order to show the country that he was conscious and able to function. He was covered from the waist down in a hospital sheet, making it impossible to see the severity of his injuries.
But rumors began to circulate with each passing week that he spent in France, first at a military hospital near Paris, and then at a private villa where he received physical therapy.