TUNIS: The freshly banned jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia was planning a series of political assassinations in Tunisia in its effort to establish an Islamic emirate in North Africa, the Interior Ministry said on Wednesday.
The ministry disclosed Ansar's plans one day after Prime Minister Ali Larayedh declared it a terrorist organisation and said the state now had proof the militants had killed two secular politicians and several soldiers this year.
Ansar al-Sharia is the most radical Islamist group to emerge in Tunisia since secular autocratic ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011, and poses a test to the authority of the moderate Islamist-led government.
"This organisation, which was collecting large quantities of weapons, planned to spread chaos and create a security vacuum through assassinations, before seizing power and establishing the first Islamic emirate in North Africa," Mustapha Ben Amor, a senior ministry official, told reporters.
Among its targets were Mustapha Ben Jaafar, chairman of the assembly writing a new constitution, former Foreign Minister Kamal Morjan, Amer Larayedh, a senior official of the governing Islamist party Ennahda, and several journalists, he said.
Tunisia, which has taken an increasingly tough line against armed militants stoking uncertainty here, is struggling to save its nascent democracy amid popular discontent and the Egyptian army's ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood government there.
Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou told the news conference that dozens of arrested Ansar members had made confessions that helped the government piece together its structure and plans.
Among the evidence he showed were documents, videos and email and Skype exchanges his ministry had obtained that he said proved Ansar was loyal to al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQMI). He also displayed a diagram depicting Ansar's internal hierarchy.
The ministry added that Ansar, which it said received its funding from like-minded groups in Yemen, Mali and Libya, also planned to attack factories and other economic sites in Tunisia.
Ansar leader Saifallah Benahssine, also known as Abu Iyadh, is a former al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan being sought by Tunisian police for allegedly inciting an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September 2012.
Four people were killed in those disturbances, which began as a protest over a film that mocked the Prophet Mohammad.
Ansar was the prime suspect in the assassinations of leftist secular leaders Chokri Belaid in February and Mohamed Brahmi in July, which police said were carried out with the same gun.
It was also suspected in the killing of eight soldiers, some of whose throats were slit, in the rugged Mount Chaambi area near the Algerian border in July.
The assassinations and killings of the soldiers plunged Tunisia into political turmoil late last month. The discussions and mediated contacts among politicians in recent weeks are aimed at breaking that deadlock and leading to new elections.
Ennahda, which governs in coalition with two smaller secular parties, has come under growing pressure from critics for promoting an Islamist agenda, mismanaging the economy and the security challenge from radical Salafi and jihadist Muslims.