Tunisian president says there is ‘no turning back’

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s President Kais Saied said on Thursday there was “no turning back” from his decision to freeze parliament and assume executive power, moves his opponents have branded a coup.

Speaking in a video published by his office, Saied also rejected calls for talks over the crisis, saying “there is no dialogue except with the honest” and that no dialogue was possible with “cancer cells.”

The biggest party in parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, which has been the most vocal opponent of Saied’s moves, had called for dialogue in a statement earlier on Thursday.

Some 11 days after his intervention, Saied has not named a new prime minister, announced any steps to end the emergency or declared his longer-term intentions.

The powerful labor union, as well as both the United States and France, have called on him to quickly appoint a new government. The union is preparing a roadmap to end the crisis that it says it will present to Saied.

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and ranking member Jim Risch said on Thursday they were deeply concerned by the situation.

“President Saied must recommit to the democratic principles that underpin U.S.-Tunisia relations, and the military must observe its role in a constitutional democracy,” they said in a joint statement.

Ousted Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi appeared in public for the first time on Thursday since he was dismissed. He was shown in pictures published by the anti-corruption watchdog that it said were taken on Thursday at its office.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Rescuers pull 394 migrants from dangerously overcrowded boat off Tunisia

ABOARD SEA-WATCH 3, Mediterranean -Two humanitarian rescue ships pulled 394 migrants from a dangerously overcrowded wooden boat in the Mediterranean overnight on Sunday in an operation lasting about six hours, a Reuters witness said.

Sea-Watch 3, a vessel run by German NGO Sea Watch, and Ocean Viking, run by European charity SOS Mediterranee, rescued the migrants in international waters off Tunisia 68 km (40 miles) from the North African coast, near oil facilities and other ships.

Sea-Watch 3, which assumed command of the operation, took 141 of the survivors while Ocean Viking took the rest. The yacht Nadir, from the German NGO ResQ Ship, later gave support.

It was not clear if there were any deaths or injuries among the migrants who were in the wooden boat, which was crammed with migrants on deck and inside the hull.

The craft was taking in water and its engine was not working, the Reuters witness said.

Migrant boat departures from Libya and Tunisia to Italy and other parts of Europe have increased in recent months as weather conditions have improved.

According to the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration, more than 1,100 people fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East have perished this year in the Mediterranean.

Many of the migrants in this latest rescue were seen jumping off the boat and trying to swim to Sea-Watch 3, the Reuters witness said.

The migrants were mainly men from Morocco, Bangladesh, Egypt and Syria.

(Reporting by Darrin Zammit Lupi, writing by Stephen Jewkes, editing by Mark Heinrich)

Tunisian democracy in turmoil after president sacks government

By Tarek Amara and Angus McDowall

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s nascent democracy faced its worst crisis in a decade on Monday after President Kais Saied ousted the government and froze parliament with help from the army, a move denounced as a coup by the main parties including Islamists.

It follows months of deadlock and disputes pitting Saied, seen as a political outsider, against Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and a fragmented parliament as Tunisia has descended into an economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move risks a destabilizing confrontation between the army-backed president and groups that say the step is undemocratic, including Islamists who were repressed for decades until the 2011 Tunisian revolt that sparked the “Arab Spring.”

In a declaration late on Sunday, Saied invoked emergency powers under the constitution’s Article 18 to dismiss Mechichi and suspend parliament for 30 days, saying he would govern alongside a new premier. He rejected accusations of a coup.

Large crowds poured into the streets in support, reflecting growing anger at the moderate Islamist Ennahda party – the biggest party in parliament – and the government over chronic economic malaise. The economy shrank by 8% last year after the pandemic hit the tourism sector.

Ennahda and other main parties said Saied’s actions breached the constitution.

Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda which has been part of successive coalitions, decried it as an assault on democracy and urged Tunisians to take to the streets in opposition.

“I am against gathering all powers in the hands of one person,” Ghannouchi said when he arrived at parliament early on Monday morning where soldiers surrounding the building stopped him from entering. He had said he would call a session in defiance of Saied.

Nearby, supporters and opponents of the president threw stones at each other leading to injuries with one man sitting on the pavement bleeding from the head. Tunisia’s hard-currency bonds tumbled.

The army, which has yet to comment on Saied’s moves, barred workers from the government palace in the Kasbah and blocked off the state television building.

Mechichi — also an independent — is at his home and not under arrest, one source close to him and two Tunisian security sources said.

Saied, who has yet to say when the new premier will be appointed, said he would replace the defense and justice ministers.

His actions followed a day of protests against the government and Ennahda for what is seen as a failure to curb the COVID-19 crisis and revive the economy.


Though it has failed to deliver prosperity or good governance, Tunisia’s democratic experiment since 2011 has stood in stark contrast to the fate of other countries where Arab Spring revolts ended in bloody crackdowns and civil war.

Outside parliament, supporters of Saied and Ennahda hurled insults and bottles at each other.

“We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said a young man who gave his name as Ayman.

He was referring to the Islamist movement founded in Egypt in 1928 which inspired Sunni Islamists across the Arab world, including Ennahda.

In recent years, Ennahda has sought to distance itself from the Brotherhood.

Imed Ayadi, an Ennahda member, likened Saied to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who deposed the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi in 2013.

“Saied is a new Sisi who wants to collect all authority for himself …We will stand up to the coup against the revolution”, he said.

Saied has warned against any violent opposition would be met with force. He swept to office in 2019 after campaigning as the scourge of a corrupt, incompetent elite.

He framed his actions as a constitutional and popular response to the economic and political paralysis Tunisia has been mired in for years. He said Article 80 gave him the power to dismiss the government and appoint a temporary administration and to freeze parliament and lift the immunity of its members.

However, the article requires consultation with the prime minister and parliament speaker and Ghannouchi has denied having been consulted while Mechichi has not spoken in public.

It also requires approval by a constitutional court that has not yet been set up.

Two of the other main parties in parliament, Heart of Tunisia and Karama, joined Ennahda in accusing Saied of a coup.

There has been a muted international response to Saied’s move but Turkey’s ruling, Islamist-rooted AK Party condemned his actions. Qatar, which has supported Sunni Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, called on all parties to avoid escalation and move towards dialogue.

A spokesperson for the German Foreign Office said the suspension of parliament was based on a “a rather broad interpretation of the constitution”.

“We do not want to call it a coup,” the spokesperson said in response to a journalist’s question. “We will certainly seek talks with the Tunisian ambassador in Berlin.”

The European Union also urged all political actors in Tunisia to respect the country’s constitution and avoid violence.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara and Mohamed Argoubi in Tunis, additional reporting by Robin Emmot in Brussels and Holger Hansen in Berlin; writing by Angus McDowall/Tom Perry, editing by Lincoln Feast and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Pandemic pace slows worldwide except for southeast Asia, eastern Mediterranean: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic is still expanding, but the rise in cases and deaths has slowed globally, except for southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

In its latest epidemiological update, issued on Monday night, it said that the Americas remains the hardest-hit region, accounting for half of newly reported cases and 62% of the 39,240 deaths worldwide in the past week.

More than 23.65 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and 811,895​ have died, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday.

“Over 1.7 million new COVID-19 cases and 39,000 new deaths were reported to WHO for the week ending 23 August, a 4% decrease in the number of cases and (a 12% decrease) in the number of deaths compared to the previous week,” the WHO said.

Southeast Asia, the second most affected region, reported a jump accounting for 28% of new cases and 15% of deaths, it said. India continues to report the majority of cases, but the virus is also spreading rapidly in Nepal.

In WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, the number of reported cases rose by 4%, but the number of reported deaths has consistently dropped over the last six weeks, the WHO said. Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan reported the highest increase in cases compared to the previous week.

The number of cases and deaths reported across Africa decreased by 8% and 11% respectively in the past week, “primarily due to a decrease in cases reported in Algeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa”, it said.

“In the European region, the number of cases reported has consistently increased over the last three weeks,” it said. “However, only a slight decrease (1%) was reported in the most recent week, and the number of deaths have continued to decrease across the region.”

In WHO’s western Pacific region, the number of new cases dropped by 5%, driven by less spread in Japan, Australia, Singapore, China and Vietnam. South Korea reported an 180% jump in cases, “mainly due to an increase in cases associated with religious gatherings”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Tunisia PM, in Germany, dismisses criticism over asylum deportations

Tunisia PM and Germany Chancellor to discuss refugee/migrant issue

BERLIN (Reuters) – Tunisia’s prime minister, in Germany for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, rejected criticism on Tuesday that his country had been slow to take back failed asylum seekers from Europe, including Berlin Christmas market attacker Anis Amri.

Youssef Chahed also rejected the idea of Tunisia setting up its own asylum centers to ease the burden on Europe.

Shortcomings in the system were exposed in December by the failure to deport Tunisian Islamic State supporter Amri, who was on a watch list and had been denied asylum six months before he killed 12 people by driving a truck through the market.

In an interview in Bild, Chahed said cooperation with Germany on asylum seekers was functioning well.

“The biggest problem for Europe is refugees who go from Libya to Italy,” he said, adding that German authorities needed to provide the correct paperwork to be able to send back failed asylum seekers to Tunisia.

It was largely a delay in getting the right documents, including identity papers, that prevented Amri from being repatriated. He was shot dead by Italian police in Milan on Dec. 23.

“Illegal immigrants who use false papers sometimes make things difficult and prolong the process,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of Tunisia building refugee centers with European help, Chahed said:

“Tunisia is a very young democracy, I don’t think that it can function or that we have capacity to create refugee camps,” he said, adding that the main focus should be finding a solution with Libya.

Merkel has been weakened by her open-door migrant policy which allowed more than a million refugees into Germany in the last two years. She is now trying to show voters she is beefing up security and cracking down on illegal migrants before a national election due in September.

Merkel needs the cooperation of countries like Tunisia to speed up deportations. She also plans to give police greater powers to detain rejected asylum seekers seen as a terrorist threat and to set up ‘federal departure centers’ near airports to house rejected applicants ahead of their deportation.

Chahed visited the site of the December attack by Amri in western Berlin and laid flowers there.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Tunisian prisoners tell of life with Islamic State in Libya

Olfa, 39, mother of Rahma who is the wife of Nurdine Chouchan, who was killed during a U.S. air strike in Libya, reacts during an interview with Reuters in Tunisia

By Aidan Lewis and Ahmed Elumami

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – When a U.S. air strike hit Sabratha in western Libya on Feb. 19, it reduced a building on the southern fringes of the city to rubble, killing dozens of militants and exposing a network of Islamic State cells operating just near the Tunisian border.

It also upended the lives of three young Tunisian women who were married to militants killed in the strike or its aftermath, and are now being held with their children in a Tripoli prison.

The women’s accounts, given in a rare interview, shed light on how Islamic State was able to operate largely undisturbed in Sabratha as the cell’s mainly Tunisian members plotted attacks back in their home country.

It is also an illustration of how the militant group may continue to find space amid Libya’s turmoil even as it risks losing its stronghold of Sirte, another Libyan coastal city further to the east.

“We lived normally in the city, the neighbors knew us. We even went to the market and to the beauty salon,” said Rahma al-Shekhawi, the 17-year–old wife of Noureddine Chouchane, a senior commander who officials say was killed in the February strike.

Some militants stayed in Sabratha as they prepared to move on to Sirte or to Syria, but most were planning operations in Tunisia, she said. “They were buying weapons under the eyes of our neighbors.”

Local officials in Sabratha have long denied or played down Islamic State’s presence in the city and it was not possible to confirm those statements.

But U.S. and Tunisian officials say Chouchane played an important role in preparing two major attacks on tourists last year, first at a museum in Tunis and then on a beach in the resort city of Sousse, after which he became a wanted figure.

But in Sabratha “the authorities never came looking for us even though everyone knew where we lived,” she said. “It only changed after the strike.”


Islamic State began expanding into Libya in late 2014, as fighters from the Libyan-dominated al-Battar battalion returned to the eastern city of Derna.

Over the following year, the group joined a military campaign in Benghazi, took full control of Sirte and carried out attacks in Tripoli, partly by merging with or recruiting local militants from the al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al Sharia.

Yet Islamic State failed to make the kind of rapid advances it achieved in the Middle East, struggling to raise revenue or win broad support in Libya’s fractured society.

Membership tilted increasingly towards foreign fighters, with Tunisians the most numerous, residents and officials say.

In Sirte, the group set up a proto-state that followed the model established in Iraq and Syria, taxing residents, enforcing strict rules over dress and education and carrying out regular public punishments including executions. It has since lost parts of the city to pro-government forces.

But in Sabratha, where Tunisians were especially dominant, there was a looser structure, the prisoners said.

“There was no leader in Sabratha, everyone did their own thing,” said Rahma al-Shekhawi, though she said the main focus was on expanding into Tunisia.

Rahma’s sister Ghofran, 18, also married to an Islamic State member, said militants in Sabratha were divided into cells that were ready to defy the group’s hierarchical structures.

“Each group had an emir who was working on his own strategy – some were making passports for Syria, some were working on Tunisia and others were working on Libya,” she said.

“They always asked for instructions from the emir in Syria, who told them to obey the emir in Sirte, but they refused and they took decisions by themselves.”


Only after February’s air strike did local Libyan brigades, known as “thuwar” (revolutionaries) because of their role in the 2011 uprising that toppled veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi, take on the Islamic State militants in their midst.

With planes circling over the city, residents began searching for militants partly because they feared further strikes, said Wahida Bin Mukhtar al-Rabhi, the third Tunisian prisoner.

Rabhi and her 2-year-old son, and Ghofran with her 5-month-old daughter, fled south towards the desert with their husbands.

Rabhi said they went without food for a day as they tried to arrange help to get to the nearby town of Zawiya.

“The clashes started, and my son Bara was hit by bullets in his stomach and back. At that point my husband started shouting, ‘there are women and children with us’, but the thuwar didn’t want to stop because they knew we were Islamic State and we might blow ourselves up.”

Rabhi said she was searched and beaten by the local brigades and then handed over to Tripoli’s Special Deterrence Force, who took her to identify her husband’s body.

Her son was given treatment in a local hospital before they were both brought to the prison in the capital where dozens of other Islamic State suspects are also held.

Despite their uncertain future in Libya, the women say they don’t want to return to Tunisia, where they suffered poverty and persecution for their Islamist beliefs.

“I want to be happy with my son, I want to get back to my life,” said Rabhi. “I don’t want my son to grow up in prison.”

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

Border attack feeds Tunisia fears of Libya jihadist spillover

TUNIS/ALGIERS (Reuters) – The signal to attack came from the mosque, sending dozens of Islamist fighters storming through the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdan to hit army and police posts in street battles that lit the dawn sky with tracer bullets.

Militants used a megaphone to chant “God is Great,” and reassure residents they were Islamic State, there to save the town near the Libyan border from the “tyrant” army. Most were Tunisians themselves, with local accents, and even some familiar faces, officials and witnesses to Monday’s attack said.

Hours later, 36 militants were dead, along with 12 soldiers and seven civilians, in an assault authorities described as an attempt by Islamic State to carve out terrain in Tunisia.

Whether Islamic State aimed to hold territory as they have in Iraq, Syria and Libya, or intended only to dent Tunisia’s already battered security, is unclear and the group has yet to officially claim the attack.

But as fuller details of the Ben Guerdan fighting emerge, the incident highlights the risk Tunisia faces from home-grown jihadists drawn to Iraq, Syria and Libya, and who have threatened to bring their war back home.

Despite Tunisian forces’ preparations to confront returning fighters, and their defeat of militants in Ben Guerdan, Monday’s assault shows how the country is vulnerable to violence spilling over from Libya as Islamic State expands there.

Authorities are still investigating the Ben Guerdan attack. But most of the militants appear to have been already in the town, with a few brought in from Libya. Arms caches were deposited around the city before the assault.

“Most of them were from Ben Guerdan, we know their faces. They knew where to find the house of the counter-terrorist police chief,” one witness, Sabri Ben Saleh, told Reuters. “They were driving round in a car filled with weapons, my neighbors said they knew some of them.”

Troops have killed 14 more militants around Ben Guerdan since Monday. Others have been arrested and more weapons seized.


Officials say they are still determining if the militants had been in Libya before or had returned from fighting with Islamic State overseas. But that such a large number of militants and arms were in Tunisia is no surprise.

After its revolt in 2011 to topple Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has struggled with growing Islamic militancy.

More than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to government estimates. Tunisian security sources say many are with Islamic State in Libya.

Gunmen trained in Libya were blamed for attacks on tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis a year ago and at a beach hotel in Sousse in June.

Tunisians also play a major role in Islamic State in Libya where they run training camps, according to Tunisian security sources.

But the scale of Monday’s attack was unprecedented. The militants were well-organized, handing out weapons to their fighters from a vehicle moving through the city, with knowledge of the town and its military barracks.

“We came across a group of terrorists with their Kalashnikovs, and they told us: ‘Don’t worry we are not here to target you. We are the Islamic State and we are here for the tyrants in the army,'” said Hassein Taba, a local resident.

The attack tests Tunisia at a difficult time. After Islamic State violence last year, the tourism industry that represents 7 percent of the economy is struggling to tempt visitors to return.

With its new constitution, free elections and secular history, Tunisia is a target for jihadists looking to upset a young democracy just five years after the overthrow of dictator Ben Ali.

“The battle of Ben Guerdane in Tunisia, 20 miles from the Libyan border … is proof enough that the Islamic State has cells far and wide,” said Geoff Porter, at North Africa Risk Consulting. “But what these cells can reliably do … and how they are directed by Islamic State leadership in Sirte, let alone in Iraq and Syria, is not known.”


Islamic State has grown in Libya over the past year and half, coopting local fighters, battling with rivals and taking over the town of Sirte, now its main base.

That has worried Tunisian authorities, who have built a border trench and tightened controls along nearly 200-km (125 miles) of the frontier with Libya.

Western military experts are training Tunisians to protect a porous border where smuggling has been a long tradition. Ben Guerdan is well-known as a smuggling town.

“There are still some blind spots in intelligence, but they are advancing with the cooperation of neighboring countries and with the West,” said Ali Zarmdini, a Tunisian military analyst.

But Tunisia’s North African neighbors worry about the spill over impact of any further Western air strikes and military action against Islamic State in Libya.

After a U.S. air strike killed 40 mostly Tunisian militants in the Libyan town of Sabratha last month, Tunisian forces went on alert for any cross-border incursions.

Just days before the Ben Guerdan attack, Tunisian troops killed five militants who tried to cross from Libya.

But the fact that even after that setback, militants mustered a force of 50 fighters to strike the town shows the group’s ability to keep testing the Tunisian military.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Security fears overshadow world’s biggest travel fair

BERLIN (Reuters) – Security fears are on everybody’s lips at the ITB travel trade fair in Berlin this year as a battered tourist industry seeks to reassure travelers and tour operators that they need not shy away from booking summer holidays for this year.

Attacks in tourist hotspots like a Tunisian beach resort and the city of Paris over the past year have rattled travelers’ confidence, sending bookings for Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt plummeting and heralding a slowdown in demand for international travel.

“People have money to spend, but there’s a strong negative impact from the geopolitical situation. People fear attacks,” Roy Scheerder, commercial director at low cost Dutch airline Transavia, told Reuters at ITB.

Airlines, tour operators, hoteliers and travel search companies at the fair said they had seen more caution than usual in bookings at the start of the year, often a popular time for people to book trips.

A survey by consultancy IPK International projected that growth in the number of international trips taken would slow to 3 percent this year, down from 4.6 percent in 2015.

Rolf Freitag, founder of IPK, said security fears had knocked off about 1.5 percentage points from the expected growth this year. Of 50,000 people in 42 countries surveyed at the start of February, 15 percent said they would either not travel or holiday in their home country this year.

Hotel groups like Marriott International and Best Western expressed concern over tourist bookings for Paris after November’s attacks on the French capital, which may have a knock-on effect on other destinations.

“It has a ripple effect. If you think about someone traveling from the United States to Paris, Paris was not the only city they would visit, they would also go to other parts of France or Europe, and that has been curtailed,” Best Western CEO David Kong told Reuters.

The beneficiaries are destinations perceived to carry a smaller risk of becoming the target of attacks.

“The really hot markets are anywhere that’s safe. Spain is on fire for this summer. Italy is very strong,” Darren Huston, chief executive of Priceline Group and its subsidiary Booking.com, told Reuters.

Spanish low-cost carrier Vueling, for instance, has added more capacity to Spanish destinations from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland to keep up with demand, though it highlighted that hotel space was running out.

Destinations in North America and the Caribbean are seeing increased demand, while search firm Kayak said Germans were more interested in hotels in their own country this year.

Some in the industry are clinging to hope that tourists will still travel this summer but are holding off on firm bookings longer than usual due to the uncertain security outlook.

“Past experience has shown us that a country that is serious about tourism and has built an infrastructure always bounces back,” Taleb Rifai, the head of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), told Reuters in an interview.

“Look at Egypt. It has been up and down for the last 10 years. Every time it comes back stronger than before,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen and Tina Bellon; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Tunisia says Islamic State attacked border to control town

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said on Tuesday Islamic State militants had carried out the huge raid on Ben Guerdan on Monday that killed 55 people in an attempt to control the town and expand their territory.

Tunisia has become increasingly concerned about violence spilling across its frontier as Islamic State has expanded in Libya, taking advantage of the country’s chaos to control the city of Sirte and setting up training camps there.

Dozens of militants stormed through the border town of Ben Guerdan on Monday attacking army and police posts and triggering street battles during which troops killed 36 fighters. Twelve soldiers and seven civilians also died during the attack.

Essid said officials were still investigating whether the group of 50 militants had infiltrated across the frontier from Libya, though officials found three caches of arms, explosives and rockets in Ben Guerdan after the attack.

“They wanted to take over the barracks and police stations and gain territory, but our forces were ready,” Essid told reporters. “They thought it was going to be easy and the people of Ben Guerdan would help them. But Tunisians would never accept them.”

The attack was one of the worst in Tunisia’s history and followed three major Islamic State assaults last year, including gun attacks on a museum in Tunis and a beach resort in Sousse that targeted foreign tourists.

Since its 2011 revolt to oust autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has battled a growing Islamist militancy at home and more than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight for Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

But the increasing chaos in Libya, where two rival governments and armed factions are battling for control, has allowed Islamic State to thrive just over Tunisia’s border, and the government has been preparing for potential attacks.

The United Nations is trying to bring Libya’s factions behind a national unity government that would allow Western governments to help them fight Islamic State. But the group’s rapid growth has also prompted Western governments to consider air strikes and special forces operations in Libya.

Last month, a U.S. air strike killed more than 40 militants in Sabratha, a coastal town near the Tunisian border. Officials say many were Tunisian fighters.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Militants attack Tunisian forces near Libyan border, 53 killed

TUNIS (Reuters) – Dozens of Islamist fighters stormed through the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdan near the Libyan border on Monday, attacking army and police posts in a raid that killed at least 53 people, including civilians, the government and residents said.

Local television broadcast images of soldiers and police crouched in doorways and on rooftops as gunshots echoed in the center of the town. Bodies of dead militants lay in the streets near the military barracks after the army regained control.

Authorities sealed off the nearby beach resort town of Djerba, a popular destination for foreign and local tourists, imposed a curfew on Ben Guerdan and closed two border crossings with Libya after the attack.

“I saw a lot of militants at dawn, they were running with their Kalashnikovs,” Hussein, a resident, told Reuters by telephone. “They said they were Islamic State and they came to target the army and the police.”

It was not clear if the attackers crossed the border, and no group immediately claimed responsibility. But it was the type of militant operation Tunisia’s government has feared as it prepares for potential spillover from Libya, where Islamic State militants have gained ground.

Since its 2011 revolt to oust ruler Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has struggled with Islamist militancy at home and across the border. Militants trained in jihadist camps in Libya carried out two attacks last year in Tunisia.

“This attack was an unprecedented, well-organized. They wanted to try to control the Ben Guerdan region and name it as their new Wilaya,” President Beji Caid Essebsi said, referring to the name Islamic State uses for regions it considers part of its self-described caliphate.

Soldiers killed 35 militants and arrested six, the Interior Ministry said. Hospital and security sources said at least seven civilians were killed along with 11 soldiers.

Troops also later discovered a large cache of rifles, explosives and rocket-propelled grenades in Ben Guerdan, a security source said.

“If the army had not been ready, the terrorists would have been able to raise their flag over Ben Guerdan and gotten a symbolic victory,” said Abd Elhamid Jelassi, vice president of the Islamist party Ennahda, part of the government coalition.


More than 3,000 Tunisians have gone to fight with Islamic State and other groups in Syria and Iraq. Tunisian security officials say increasingly they are returning to join the militant group in Libya.

Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi five years ago, Libya has slipped into chaos, with two rival governments and armed factions struggling for control. Islamic State has grown in the turmoil, taking over the city of Sirte and drawing foreign recruits.

Tunisian jihadists are taking a lead role in Islamic State camps in Libya, Tunisian security sources say.

Tunisian forces have been on alert for possible militant infiltrations since last month, when a U.S. air strike targeted mostly Tunisian Islamic State militants at a camp near the border in Libya’s Sabratha.

Western military advisers are starting to train Tunisian border forces to help better protect the frontier with electronic surveillance and drones and authorities have built a trench and barrier to help stop militants crossing.

Islamist militant gunmen trained in Libyan camps carried out two of the three major attacks on Tunisia last year, including assaults on the Tunis Bardo museum and a Sousse beach hotel targeting foreign tourists.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Larry King)