Magharebia (Washington DC)

Tunisia: Nation Confronts Armed Groups

Tunis — Tunisia has become a transit point for groups smuggling weapons from Libya into Algeria and Mali, experts said.

As the political crisis in Tunisia continues to unfold, security forces are seeing an increase in clashes with armed extremists and criminals.

A shooting between security forces and armed groups erupted on Thursday (February 21st) evening in the Hasi El Frid area of Kasserine province.

The same day, National Guard forces and armed salafists exchanged gunfire in Sidi Bouzid. One of the attackers died and two police officers were injured, Jawhara FM reported.

Four men started shooting when their vehicle was stopped at a security checkpoint. After a foot chase, they opened fire on law officers from a mosque in the centre of the town, Al Arabyia reported. A search of their car uncovered military uniforms, knives and satellite communication equipment.

Police and soldiers on Thursday night surrounded the Rahma Mosque.

The Sidi Bouzid clash came a day after the National Guard discovered a weapons cache in El M'nihla, in the province of Ariana.

Security forces arrested thirteen suspects after finding Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, explosives and ammunition.

"Eleven of the detainees hid in the Ennour mosque in Douar Hicher...where a large quantity of bladed weapons, including swords and knives of different sizes, was seized," Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche said.

He added that the investigation was still under way.

"The movement of these armed groups at this time is not arbitrary; rather, it is well-studied, planned in advance and their goal is clear," military historian and analyst Faicel Charif told Magharebia.

"Directly after the Siliana events and the announcement of a general strike, these groups moved," he said. "After that, a truck loaded with arms, hand grenades, maps was discovered in Fernana in Jendouba province. Then there were the events in Bou Chebka in Kasserine province, on the border with Algeria."

The border post chief in Feriana, 27-year-old Anis Jlassi, was killed in the December 10th gunfight with armed militants.

For the analyst, it was no surprise that weapons caches were found after the killing of opposition leader Chokri Belaid triggered widespread unrest.

"Those gunmen closely monitor the general situation in the country and try to exploit the security crisis," he said.

"Most of the movements are well-studied, and there is co-ordination between these groups and others outside the country," he added.

Tunisia is a popular transit point because it is "easy to hide there and prepare for crossing into Mali, which is currently a haven for armed groups", Charif said.

"Tunisia's geographical space is limited," the analyst explained. "Tunisia's land area is narrow and doesn't allow these groups to stay for a long period of time," he added.

Tunisian political and security analyst Hechmi Mira also warned "of the danger of entry of arms to Tunisian groups affiliated to al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) through official crossings between Tunisia and Libya".

"There are armed groups in Libya that smuggle arms to Tunisia and encourage Tunisian groups embracing jihadist salafist ideology to establish an Islamic emirate in Tunisia," Mira said.

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