Four police, three militants killed in Tunisia raids

Tunisian police officers pass near a bullet-riddled house damaged during the operation.
Tunisian police officers pass near a bullet-riddled house damaged during the operation.PHOTO: REUTERS

TUNIS (AFP) - Four policemen and three suspected militants were killed during security operations Wednesday near the capital and in southern Tunisia, in the latest violence to hit the country, officials said.

Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has suffered from a wave of militant violence since its 2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In Wednesday’s deadliest confrontation, four policemen were killed when a militant detonated his explosives belt after a firefight erupted in the Tatouine governorate, said the interior ministry.

A national guard unit had carried out the raid acting on information from an “anti-terrorist” operation earlier the same day near Tunis.

“One terrorist element was shot dead while the other detonated his explosives belt, killing two officers and two agents of the national guard,” said the ministry.

In the earlier raid, two suspected militants were killed near the capital in the operation against a cell planning “simultaneous” attacks, the same source said.

Sixteen others were arrested during the operation in Ariana province just outside Tunis, and Kalashnikov assault rifles, pistols and ammunition seized.

The interior ministry said the suspects had gathered in the area from different parts of the country.

A resident of the Sanhaji district told AFP that a two-hour gunbattle erupted with the suspects after the national guard launched the raid at around 8am (3pm Singapore time).

“They were not from the neighbourhood. We didn’t know them. They rented the house recently,” she said.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group claimed brazen attacks last year on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis and a beach resort near Sousse that killed a total of 60 people, all but one of them foreign tourists.

A November suicide bombing in the capital, also claimed by ISIS, killed 12 presidential guards and prompted the authorities to declare a state of emergency.

On Wednesday, a southern town hit in March by deadly jihadist violence from across the border in Libya staged a general strike in protest at a decision by Libyan authorities to halt cross-border trade on which its economy depends.

Ben Guerdane, one of the North African nation’s poorest towns, was the target of a militant assault that killed seven civilians and 13 security personnel in March as well as 55 extremists.

Shops and offices in the town of 60,000 inhabitants were all closed in response to the one-day strike called by the UGTT main trade union confederation, an AFP correspondent reported.

Only the hospital emergency department, a pharmacy and some schools remained open in the town, whose economy is heavily dependent on cross-border trade and where smuggling is rife.

Libyan border officials say they halted all freight traffic since the end of April through the Ras Jedir crossing in a bid to stop the smuggling of fuel, which is much cheaper across the border.

Negotiations focused on customs duties have so far failed to reach a settlement.

Libya’s prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj, whose unity government is trying to assert its authority over the violence-plagued country, met on Wednesday in Tunis with President Beji Caid Essebsi.

“The anti-terrorist struggle was at the top of the subjects raised, as well as our aim of an economic partnership,” Sarraj said, while the Tunisian presidency said the situation at Ras Jedir was also raised.

Despite the oppressive heat, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the union offices in Ben Guerdane but a planned march failed to take place.

“They tell us there are contacts (with the Libyan side) but we don’t see anything. We want radical solutions at Ras Jedir. The people are very dissatisfied,” said Mohsen Lachiheb of the UGTT.

A man in his 30s who asked not to be named blamed the town’s economic woes on politicians.

“In March, we faced a terrorist attack. They wanted to kill us with bullets. Our politicians want to kill us with their policies,” he said angrily.

Tyres were earlier set alight on the town’s streets but there was no intervention by the large number of police present.

On Monday, police used tear gas to disperse a protest by hundreds of demonstrators.