More than two dozen Islamic extremists involved in a deadly fire fight with police this month had blueprints of foreign embassies and documents naming foreign envoys, Tunisia’s official news agency quoted the interior minister as saying today.
Interior Minister Rafik Haj Kacem described the extremists involved in the clash earlier this month as “terrorists” in a closed door meeting with members of Tunisia’s governing party and suggested links with Islamic extremists in neighbouring Algeria, the TAP news agency reported.
Intelligence services of other countries have joined the investigation, TAP quoted the minister as saying. He did not name the countries.
It was the first time authorities had made available official information on the January 3 confrontation with security forces that left 14 people dead – two of them members of the security forces – or an earlier clash on December 23 2006.
Run with an iron fist, the country of some 10 million people, a tourist haven for Europeans, has largely been spared Islamic extremist violence. However, 21 people – mostly German tourists – were killed in a 2002 suicide attack on a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba. Investigators linked the attack to al Qaida.
Haj Kacem said the 27 people involved in the January 3 clash were members of the group which he called “Salafist terrorists,” in reference to the hardline Salafist movement among Muslim fundamentalists. Authorities had earlier referred to the group as simply “criminals.”
Six members of the group – five Tunisians and a Mauritanian – had crossed into Tunisia from neighbouring Algeria, TAP quoted the minister as saying. They were then joined by 21 others, and were followed by intelligence agents, according to the account.
“The intelligence services know these people, their names and their Salafist terrorist tendencies, but preferred to surprise them … and unveil their designs and their eventual links with other elements,” the minister said.
The group was surrounded “and attacked with the help of national defence (army) troops,” from December 23 until the operation culminated with a day-long shootout on January 3, TAP quoted the minister as saying.
Fifteen people were arrested following the clash in Soliman, a town 25 miles south of Tunis.
The initial clash with security forces on December 23 left two dead and two police officers injured. The minister said three police officers were injured but it was not immediately clear whether that was in addition to the two injured in December.
Blueprints of some foreign embassies and documents with the names of some foreign diplomats were seized following the fire fights, TAP quoted the minister as telling leading members of the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally party. He did not name the embassies or identify the diplomats whose names figured on the documents, according to TAP.
Explosives described as locally made also were seized, Kacem told the politicians.
The minister appeared to link the group to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or GSPC, the main insurgency movement in Algeria, which is linked to al-Qaida, by calling them “Salafist terrorists".
In December, Algerians arrested two Tunisians who reportedly said they wanted to join the GSPC, the latest among a number of Tunisians arrested and deported to Tunisia where they now face charges.