Tunis: Gunmen who clashed with Tunisia’s security forces in recent weeks were radical Islamists who were carrying details of foreign diplomats and embassies, the interior minister said on Friday.
The government had earlier said security forces had shot dead 14 gunmen and arrested 15 near Tunis after two separate gun battles on December 23 and January 3.
Interior Minister Rafik Belhadj Kacem was quoted by the official news agency TAP on Friday as telling governing party officials that the group had been assembled by six “terrorist Salafists who infiltrated via the Algerian border”. Kacem said the government had been watching the infiltrators since they crossed the Algerian border, and waited for them to gather other members before striking with the help of the army.
He said the group were all Tunisians, apart from one Mauritanian.
Two members of the security forces were killed in the clashes and three others injured, he said.
“During the investigation, (police) found images of the sites of some foreign embassies,” he said. “They also confiscated documents containing a few names of foreign diplomats living in Tunisia, and a quantity of explosives.”
Intelligence services of other countries have joined the investigation, TAP quoted the minister as saying. He did not name the countries.
A spate of militant activity is testing counter-terrorism efforts across north Africa, a region prized by al Qaeda as a potential launch pad for fresh attacks on European capitals.
The Tunisian incidents in particular, highly unusual in a country generally known to Europeans only as a sleepy holiday destination, are a warning signal to the region as a whole to step up security cooperation.
Regional experts say much of the impetus is coming from the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which is allied to Al Qaieda and called in a web video posted on Monday for attacks against the French and their allies in Algeria.
Security officials suspect the GSPC is attracting growing numbers of radical Islamists and providing them with military training, noting that there has been a steady flow of North African militant volunteers to fight US-led forces in Iraq.
In December, Algerians arrested two Tunisians who reportedly said they wanted to join the GSPC, the latest among a number of Tunisians arrested and deported to Tunisia where they now face charges.