Tunis, 29 Jumadil Akhir 1434/9 May 2013 (MINA) – Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said Wednesday (8/5), that the armed group being pursued by the army on Tunisia’s border with Algeria are veterans of the Islamist fighters in Mali.

      “They came from Mali,” Ben Jeddou said during an open session in the national assembly, without giving more details on the armed group.

      Tunisia’s army intensified its search a week ago for the jihadists hiding out in the remote border region, who are blamed for an attack on a border post in December that left a policeman dead.

      Tuesday, the interior ministry admitted that group had links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Modern Ghana quoted by Mi’raj News Agency (MINA) as reporting.

      Ben Jeddou did not say whether the Islamist fighters from Mali had joined jihadist groups in Tunisia before or after France’s military intervention in Mali.

      The devastating assault by Islamist gunmen on a desert gas plant in Algeria in January that left dozens of foreign hostages dead was linked to France’s invasion of Mali. Algeria said 11 of the 32 assailants were Tunisian.

     The two jihadist groups being hunted in Tunisia consist of around 30 people, according to the minister, the one located around Mount Chaambi. The second smaller one is based in the Kef region further north.

     “Half of them Tunisian and half Algerian,” Ben Jeddou said.

     The Chaambi group has been pursued since the deadly attack on the border post in December. But the hunt was stepped up late last month, when bombs planted by the militants began causing injuries to the armed forces combing the area. So far, 16 soldiers and national guards have been wounded, some seriously.

     In the past three days, two alleged accomplices of the armed group have been arrested, bringing to 37 the number of suspects detained in the region since December, but the defence ministry says no combatants have yet been arrested or killed.

     Defence Minister Rachid Sabbagh accepted that the search had been made harder by the army’s lack of proper equipment, especially for detecting the homemade explosives that the armed group had placed around Mount Chaambi.

     “The demining operations have not produced great results. We will need to train sniffer dogs,” he told parliament during the same session.

     Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh insisted that the security situation in Tunisia was improving and that the fugitive jihadist groups would be defeated.

     “We will pursue, dismantle their structures and bring them to justice,” Larayedh said.

     Those groups have been blamed for a wave of violence, notably an attack on the US embassy last September and the assassination of a leftist opposition leader in February, cases which Ennahda has sought to portray as isolated incidents. (T/P09/E1).

Mi’raj News Agency (MINA).

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