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Tunisia presses hunt for jihadists

Tunisian army expands operations against jihadists to remote mountain range area, aggravates tensions between opposition and Islamist government

AFP , Saturday 3 Aug 2013

Tunisia's army pressed ahead Saturday with operations against Islamists in a remote mountain range after a deadly ambush on its troops heightened a crisis sparked by a political assassination.

On Saturday, a coalition of opposition parties called for a rally to be held on Tuesday to demand the departure of the Islamist-led government and the dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly.

The call by parties from the centre-right to the extreme left chose the date to mark six months since the assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid in February.

On July 25 a second opposition figure, MP Mohamed Brahmi, was also shot dead outside his home in a Tunis suburb and authorities have said the same gun was used to kill both men, blaming jihadists for the two murders.

Authorities, meanwhile, kept a tight lid on ground and helicopter raids Friday in the Mount Chaambi area near the border with Algeria where Islamist militants, including veterans of a revolt in northern Mali, are suspected to be hiding out.

Eight Tunisian soldiers were found in the area on Monday with their throats cut after being ambushed by militants.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry said a "religious extremist" was killed and another wounded in two separate incidents while handling explosives.

And police said a suspect package was found in Tunis warning security forces to withdraw from Mount Chaambi.

The coalition government led by moderate Islamic movement Ennahda has acknowledged that the country faces a growing threat of terrorism, although it has yet to issue a call for the public to remain vigilant.

Interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aoui said on Saturday that his country was not facing any "specific" threat of terrorist attack.

"The risk of an attack is the same in Tunisia as it is in France or anywhere else in the world," he told AFP.

Ennahda has rejected mounting calls by its detractors who are calling on it to quit for failing to prevent the murders of Belaid and Brahmi, and for its inability to rein in radical Islamists.

The moderate Islamist party insists on its legitimacy to govern based on the last elections in October 2011, and has proposed instead to enlarge the coalition government.

Opponents and supporters of the government have staged daily demonstrations over the past week, with Ennahda sending out calls for a mass solidarity rally in the capital's Kasbah Square from 9 pm (2000 GMT) on Saturday.

Radical Islamists have grown in influence since the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and have been blamed for a wave of violence over the past two years.

Since Brahmi's death around 60 politicians have pulled out of the National Constituent Assembly that is drawing up Tunisia's long-delayed new constitution.

Tunisian authorities have pointed to links between the Chaambi militants, the assassins of Brahmi and Belaid and Tunisia's main Salafist organisation Ansar al-Sharia, which denies the accusation.

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