BEIRUT

Middle East

Tunisian troops battle Islamist militants near Algerian border

  • Tunisian soldiers check cars in Tunis on January 16, 2011. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR

TUNIS: Tunisian troops clashed with Islamist militants near the border with Algeria on Tuesday, a security source said, in an area where the army is hunting Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

Tunisia, economically struggling and deeply polarised between Islamists and their opponents, is in the throes of a political transition that began with the overthrow of strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising two years ago.

The Islamist-led government is struggling to restore stability following the assassination of secular opposition figure Chokri Belaid on Feb. 6 which provoked widespread unrest.

The security source said Tuesday's clash took place in the northwest town of Tajrouin, in Kef province, between the army and six members of a "terrorist group". There were no immediate reports on casualties.

The source said the militants were Salafists, who adhere to a puritanical interpretation of Islam, but did not specify their nationalities.

The cause of the fighting was unclear, but security forces have been attempting to track down Al-Qaeda-linked militants near the borders with Algeria and Libya over the past six weeks.

They suspect the fighters are attempting to bring weapons into the country from Algeria, where Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is active, and from Libya, which has been unstable since a 2011 revolution.

Last month, police seized a big weapons cache in Tunis. In December, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said police had arrested 16 Islamist militants who had been accumulating arms with the aim of creating an Islamic state.

They were linked to AQIM, the regional arm of the global militant Al-Qaeda network, and had been planning to attack security headquarters, he said.

Larayedh said last month police had identified Belaid's killer as a member of a Salafist group who was on the run.

Since Ben Ali was toppled in the "Jasmine Revolution" which inspired a wave of Arab revolts known as the Arab Spring, the influence of hardline Islamists has increased in Tunisia. Secularist groups accuse the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party of being too soft on militants.

 
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