TUNIS, May 13, (AFP): The Tunisian government said Thursday that 37 suspects, including several jihadists linked to the Islamic State group, had been arrested in the security operations carried out the previous day.
Two “dangerous and wanted terrorists” were killed during the raid Wednesday in Mnihla near the capital, while 16 suspected jihadists were arrested, the interior ministry said Thursday.
Another 21 other suspects were arrested in raids that followed, the ministry added.
All those arrested were members of “terrorist cells operating across (Tunisian) territory”.
“They have been monitored and followed by the national guard for more than four months,” the statement said.
In a deadly confrontation that erupted during one of the raids in the Tataouine governorate, four policemen were killed when a militant detonated his explosives belt after a firefight erupted.
The men arrested in the raids had all been trained in the use of firearms, the ministry said.
“They were preparing to gather in Tunis to attack vital, sensitive targets in the capital and the rest of the country, as well as security positions and agents,” it said.
The suspects had been planning bomb and “suicide attacks”, it added.
Some of those arrested were “implicated in the terrorist acts that hit the Bardo Museum, the Imperial hotel at Sousse, the presidential guard’s bus and most recently Ben Guerdane,” the statement said.
Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has suffered from a wave of jihadist violence since its 2011 revolution that ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
IS claimed brazen attacks last year on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and the beach resort near Sousse that killed a total of 60 people, all but one of them foreign tourists.
A November suicide bombing in the capital, also claimed by IS, killed 12 presidential guards and prompted the authorities to declare a state of emergency.
Meanwhile, the United States on Thursday delivered military hardware to Tunisia to help the North African country hit by several Islamic State group attacks secure its borders and battle terrorism.
Light aircraft, jeeps and communications systems were part of the equipment handed over at a ceremony attended by US official Amanda Dory and Tunisian Defence Minister Farhat Horchani.
Dory, the US deputy assistant secretary of defence for African affairs, said the equipment was part of a $20-million package to bolster Tunisia’s military capabilities.
“I’m very pleased that the United States is able to provide Tunisia with surveillance aircrafts that will improve Tunisia’s ability to locate terrorists who attempt to infiltrate your borders,” she said.
“These aircrafts will be able to provide advanced warning to ground forces employing advanced digital communications technology to coordinate rapid introduction utilising these new jeep vehicles or other existing assets.”
Horchani, who took delivery of the equipment at the Aouina air base near Tunis, said the “sophisticated” hardware would “strengthen our capacity to protect our land and maritime borders in the face of regional security challenges”.
Tunisia was hit by a series of deadly IS attacks last year on foreign holidaymakers and security forces that killed dozens and dealt a devastating blow to the tourism industry, a mainstay of its economy.
Officials regularly voice concern about the situation in neighbouring Libya, where IS has built a bastion in the coastal city of Sirte which it overran last year and turned into a training camp for militants.
Tunisia has built a 200-km (125-mile) barrier that stretches about half the length of its border with Libya in an attempt to prevent militants from infiltrating.
“The surveillance capability will increase the government of Tunisia’s awareness of activity along your borders, it is another example of how the United states and Tunisia cooperate to gather additional information about potential threats,” said Dory.
She said Washington was keen on “strengthening and expanding the security cooperation partnership between our two countries as together we confront growing instability in the region and support Tunisia in its sovereign defence against potential threats.”
“We commend the ministry of defence for taking an important step in constructing a barrier on your southern border” with Libya, she added.
Last year the United States designated Tunisia a major non-NATO ally.