On Monday, gunmen ambushed a Tunisian army patrol in a mountainous border region known to be an Islamic stronghold, killing at least eight soldiers, according to a presidential spokesman.
The attack occurred on Jebel Chaambi, Tunisia’s highest mountain at 1,500 meters (5,000 feet). It is located near the Algerian border and the city of Kasserine. The area was the site of an intensive military hunt for an al-Qaida-linked militant group during the spring.
According to presidential spokesman Adnan Mancer, who said his information came from the defense ministry:
An entire patrol carrying out a search operation in this mountainous region was decimated.”
Three of the dead, according to Radio Mosaique FM, had their throats cut and that the attackers made off with the soldiers’ weapons.
Reinforcements, Mancer stated, have been sent to the region. The army had announced it was cleared of militants on June 24 after a two-month operation that cost three lives, wounded 27 people and set off almost a dozen road side bombs.
Tunisians, in 2011, kicked off the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings in the region. They overthrew the long-reigning dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Politics since then have been fractious here. A moderate Islamist party keeps winning elections but it is also alienating many other groups along the way.
The ambush of the Tunisian army patrol by the gunmen comes just five days after a left-wing politician was shot dead in front of his house by an alleged Islamic militant.
In a speech on the radio,Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki declared three days of mourning and called for national unity in the face of the terrorist attacks which he said were aimed at the entire country.
President Moncef Marzouki stated:
It’s our revolution that is being targeted, our way of life and our Islam that is the aim of these acts.”
The ambush comes as Tunisia’s political leaders are at each other’s throats. The opposition is demanding the dissolution of the government over the recent political assassination, which authorities have blamed on Islamic militants.
President Moncef Marzouki continued onthe radio, saying:
Are we going to let (the terrorists) realize the other half of their objectives and destroy the state? Today is the moment to come together for Tunisia, so that the blood of the martyrs is not shed in vain and to open a new page.”
Jebel Chaambi is a national park, as well as being the trailing edge of the Atlas mountain range that stretches across North Africa and is filled with dense forests, caves and deep valleys.
The military, after soldiers in a patrol were injured in April, searched the area. They discovered evidence suggesting an al-Qaida-linked movement supported by the local population had set up training camps in the area.
According to the Interior Ministry, the local militant group has named itself the Oqba Ibn Nafaa brigade, after the 7th century Arab warrior that conquered Tunisia. Reportedly, the group consists of Tunisian recruits trained by veteran Algerian jihadists with links to al-Qaida. It is said to be supported by Ansar al-Shariah, a local movement of ultraconservative Muslims, known as Salafis.
The Tunisian military has also said that the extremists bought supplies from local farmers in this impoverished region. Inhabitants of the region have long harbored anti-government sentiment.
Against a background of Quranic recitation, state television interrupted its regular programming Monday to show images of the dead and wounded.
Monday’s ambush, which shocked the country and increased anti-government sentiment on social media, might enable the opposition to mobilize Tunisians further against the government.
The opposition this week has rejected all concessions and efforts at reconciliation by Ennahda. They argue that its leaders bumbled for too long and that their time was up. They are planning to create their own rival “salvation government.”
Also on Monday, Tunisia’s powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers was in talks with the opposition. The General Union of Workers has said it may discuss a strike. Last Friday, the union’s strike called to mourn the assassinated leftist politician, Mohammad Brahmi, caused much of the country to be in a state of paralysis.
The ambush by the gunmen killing eight soldiers of the Tunisian army patrol comes right on the heels of the assassination of Brahmi. With the opposition growing in strength, many fear that Tunisia is headed for further internal turmoil.
Written by: Douglas Cobb