TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The armed group that clashed with Tunisian forces in the south of the country earlier this month had links to al-Qaida, the interior minister said Monday as he announced a wave of arrests tied to the incident.
Tunisian forces caught up with a three-man armed militant cell on Feb. 2 and killed two of them after a gunbattle the day before that wounded two soldiers and a national guard member.
Ali Laarayedh said that 12 other Tunisians have been arrested on suspicion of belonging to the group and 34 Kalashnikov assault rifles were seized in a raid along with large amounts of ammunition and Tunisia, Libyan and American currency. At least nine suspects escaped.
Citing confessions from the arrested suspects, Laarayedh said the group was in touch with al-Qaida elements in Libya and may have had links with Algerian members of the terror network as well.
All the suspects were under the age of 30 and said they were seeking to establish an Islamic emirate, the interior minister said.
Tunisia was ruled for decades by a hardline secular dictatorship that suppressed Islamists until its overthrow in January 2011. Since then, a vocal minority of ultraconservative Muslims has appeared calling for greater piety in society.
Although Tunisia has been largely spared the militant violence that has wracked neighboring Algeria, the civil war in Libya has meant that much of North Africa has been flooded by weapons.
Laarayedh confirmed on Feb. 1 that there has been an increase in the traffic of arms in Tunisia, mainly coming from neighboring Libya. Already 600 weapons were seized by security forces last year.
The North African branch of al-Qaida has a strong presence in the deserts to the south of Tunisia and has attacked targets in Algeria and Tunisia as well as taken hostages in Niger and Mali.
In response, Tunisia has boosted its security presence along its desert borders.
In May, a Tunisian army colonel was killed in a border clash believed to be with elements of al-Qaida.