Tunisian security forces killed five gunmen in new clashes on Tuesday near the border with Libya and are hunting violent jihadists hiding out in the area, the Interior Ministry said.
The renewed fighting came after about 50 extremists attacked the town of Ben Guerdane on Monday, promoting fighting that left 55 people dead. The exceptionally deadly incident highlighted fears about the Islamic State group’s growth in neighboring Libya.
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On Tuesday night, after a tense but relatively calm day, security forces searching the area killed five suspected terrorists in the Benniri district, the ministry said in a statement.
Prime Minister Habib Essid said on Tuesday the death toll from Monday’s clashes in the city of Ben Guerdane rose to 55, including 36 attackers. Seven civilians and 12 members of Tunisia’s security forces also died, and 17 others were injured.
“The attack that happened yesterday showed that our military and security forces were ready,” he told a news conference. “We won a battle, but we haven’t yet won the war on terror, and that war continues.”
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but websites affiliated with the Islamic State group said IS militants were handed a tough blow by Tunisian security forces. One website published more than 30 pictures showing militants’ bodies as well as weapons and munitions seized.
Essid said that about 50 gunmen – most of them Tunisians – took part in the attack. Only four out of the 36 attackers killed have been formally identified. Essid did not give more details about the attackers’ background but said some came from Libya.
According to local journalist Raoudha Bouttar, there was sporadic gunfire on Tuesday at the outskirts of Ben Guerdane as Tunisian forces searched for attackers still at large.
Tunisian forces have repeatedly clashed with extremists on the borders of Libya and Algeria in recent years, but Monday’s fighting was unusually bloody. Tunisia has been a model of relative stability for the region since an uprising five years ago ushered in democracy and inspired Arab Spring protests against dictatorships across the region.
An uprising in neighboring Libya led to the ouster and killing of longtime autocrat Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but since then the country has fallen into chaos, allowing the Islamic State group to take control of several cities. The divided country is ruled by two parliaments: an internationally recognized body based in the eastern city of Tobruk and a rival government, backed by Islamist-allied militias, that controls the capital, Tripoli.
Libyan Foreign Minister Ali Abu-Zakouk, of the Tripoli government, told The Associated Press that the attackers aimed at “gaining grounds and controlling territory.”
He said that his government has asked the Tunisian authorities to activate the bilateral security agreement and joint security committees, “so we can control the border and build solidarity to fight this malignant cancerous organization which is planning to spread chaos across Tunisia.”
Essid said the gunmen targeted a police station and military facilities in Ben Guerdane after launching their attack from a nearby mosque. He said attackers were arrested and gave information that led to the discovery of a weapons cache.
The prime minister also confirmed that the chief of the anti-terrorism brigade in Ben Guerdane was among those killed. He was killed in his house when he was preparing to go to work, at the beginning of the attack.
According to Essid, security and military forces in the city were not caught off guard.
“We were not passive spectators because we had received info, hence our reaction and the positive results we had,” he said.
Without elaborating, Essid insisted cooperation with “brother and friend countries” including the United States will help Tunisia in its fight against extremism but excluded the possibility of a foreign military intervention.
Tunisia is especially worried about the IS presence in Libya after dozens of tourists were killed in attacks in Tunisia last year. IS extremists claimed responsibility for those attacks, and Tunisian authorities said the attackers had been trained in Libya.
Last week, Tunisian security forces killed five heavily armed men in an hours-long firefight after they crossed into the country from Libya with a larger group. Tunisian security forces had been placed on alert based on “precise information” of possible border infiltrations following a February 19 US raid on an IS camp near the Libyan town of Sabratha, not far from the Tunisian border.