NOUAKCHOTT: Mauritanian news websites, the first to publish jihadist statements claiming a hostage attack in Algeria, death tolls and threats, have become a virtual mouthpiece for Islamist rebels in the Sahel.
Amid a vacuum of information as the staggering hostage siege played out over the weekend, it was the website of the Nouakchott news agency ANI and the Alakhbar and Sahara Media websites that provided a steady stream of statements from the jihadists.
A video of mastermind Mokhtar Belmokhtar claiming the deadly attack was the latest scoop for the sites, which for years have published ransom demand videos of Western hostages seized in the Sahel by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Similarly, during the nearly year-long occupation of northern Mali -- which like Algeria borders Mauritania -- AQIM and its allies Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have used the sites as a conduit for information.
Threats to retaliate against France, which is waging an offensive to dislodge the Islamists from Mali's north, have also filtered through these sites boasting a vast network of informants and correspondents in the zone.
"It is not about an ideological relationship, but rather linguistic and geographical ties" between the Mauritanians and the groups spread throughout the vast Sahel desert, Nouakchott-based media specialist Isselmou Ould Salihi told AFP.
Another link is the presence of Mauritanians playing strategic roles in AQIM katibas, or fighting units.
"The spokesmen of these groups are often Mauritanian, like Abdallah Chinguitty, spokesman for the Saharan emirate (the AQIM group in charge of the Sahel) or his predecessor Jouleibib, who has joined the Signatories of Blood," Salihi said.
The Signatories of Blood is the group created by Belmokhtar after he broke away from AQIM -- a Salafist group originating in Algeria which he helped set up -- and which staged the staggering attack on a remote desert gas plant in Algeria.
These Mauritanian spokesmen keep close contact with journalists in their country, facilitated by Mauritania's freedom of the press.
But this is not without consequences for the websites.
On Sunday ANI was summoned to appear before Mauritania's media watchdog, which demanded an "explanation" for its coverage of the attack in which hundreds of foreigners were held at the In Amenas gas plant.
The site published real-time reports from the Islamist fighters of the hostage death toll as a bid by the Algerian army to free them turned into a bloodbath, leaving at least 38 dead and sending shockwaves around the world.
Sahara Media was recently slapped with a warning for publishing a message from Belmokhtar urging young Mauritanians to join the Signatories of Blood.
One of Algeria's main newspapers, El Watan, dubbed ANI a "privileged channel for terrorist propaganda", accusing it of having "quasi-organic links with Islamist movements".
ANI hit back over an "unprecedented campaign of slander" against it in its efforts to cover an event in real time which had the international community "holding its breath".
ANI director Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaali has stressed that the website has "refused to publish statements of kidnappers and hostages in sound form to avoid sinking into propaganda.
"The kidnappers offered to make the hostages speak, which we declined, respecting their feelings and that of their families," he wrote on the website.