Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Terrorism on Tunisia’s borders

Violent clashes on Tunisia’s borders with Libya this week have drawn renewed attention to the threat of Islamic State militants in the region, writes Kamel Abdallah in Tunis

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Tunisian town of Ben Gardane, on the border with Libya, saw violent clashes on Monday between the Tunisian army and armed militants who attacked three security positions of the National Guard and National Security agencies and an army barracks.

The skirmishes left more than 20 of the assailants and four others dead, while six of the militants were arrested, according to a statement from the Tunisian defence and interior ministries, which said that the assailants were probably affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group.

Security and military units “eliminated what preliminary estimates put at 21 terrorists and arrested six others, while four citizens were killed, after National Guard and National Security positions and an army barracks in Ben Gardane came under synchronised attacks by armed terrorist groups,” the statement said.

Following the attacks, authorities closed the border, shutting down the Ras Ajdir crossing in the north and the Wazzin-Dhiba crossing in the south. The statement said that units of the armed forces would continue to pursue the assailants, while securing Ben Gardane and sensitive positions in the town. Aerial patrols would be increased in the area and along the border with Libya, it said.

The attacks came just days after sweeps by security formations working for the Libyan national-accord government in Tripoli targeted IS militants, most of whom were from Tunisia. These moves appear to have pushed members of the terrorist group to return to their country over the border with Libya.

After the attacks, the Tunisian Interior Ministry declared a nighttime curfew in Ben Gardane, from 7pm to 5am, and asked local residents to stay in their homes while security operations were carried out in the area.

Tunis Afrique Presse, the Tunisian official news agency, reported that security forces had closed off the town and were stopping anyone from entering or leaving. Military jets were helping to track other militants, it said, adding that security forces had also shut down Djerba, a tourist resort 100 km from Ben Gardane, fearing that militants could attempt to infiltrate the island.

Over recent weeks, Tunisia has announced that it is completing a series of border reinforcements, including an earthen barrier and trench along the border with Libya, amid rising concerns in the Tunisian security establishment of increased activity by IS on Libyan territory.

Citing a government source, the website Haqaiq Online reported that President Beji Caid Essebsi called an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Habib Essid and the ministers of interior and defence to discuss developments in the wake of the terrorist attacks on installations in Ben Gardane.

According to the website, decisions will soon be made to reinforce security and to guard against any terrorist threat targeting the country, particularly in light of the currently poor security situation in neighbouring Libya.

The first week of March saw coordinated terrorist attacks in Tunisia, particularly after the recent US air strike on terrorist groups in the Libyan city of Sabratha. Most of these were made up of Tunisians involved in planning terrorist attacks in Tunisia, according to the Pentagon.

The US State Department has cautioned US citizens against travelling to Tunisia, citing possible reactions to the Sabratha operation.

The Ben Gardane attacks were “unprecedented, coordinated and organised,” said Essebsi in a television interview. “The terrorists may have intended to take control of the situation in the region and declare a new province [for IS].”

Essebsi added that the security forces “were expecting an operation like this, perhaps not of this significance, but they were expecting it”. Tunisia is “now in a state of war against these barbarians, whom we will eliminate permanently,” he said.

Essid has tasked the interior and defence ministers with security and military operations in the Ben Gardane region and ordered them to “comprehensively comb through the southern areas” and “intensify land and aerial patrols” to track the attackers, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

On the same evening as the attacks, the Tunisian army used heavy artillery to shell a house in the Kharouba area of Ben Gardane, killing eight terrorists who had barricaded themselves inside, according to a Tunisian security source.

The source said that the house was owned by Adel Al-Ghandari, who is wanted by Tunisian security, adding that security units had tried for more than two hours to persuade the terrorists bunkered down in the house to turn themselves in before army forces went on the offensive.

Three of the men inside the house responded to the appeal but eight others refused to come out, after which the units shelled the house.

The security source said that the terrorists killed were prominent leaders of IS who were active in Libya. He said that the cell that launched the terrorist attacks in Ben Gardane may have been in the area for some time and had only recently crossed into Tunisia from Libya.

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