TUNIS, May 19, (Agencies): Tunisia’s military has killed a jihadist described as “one of the most dangerous terrorist leaders” in the country during a security operation, the defence ministry said Thursday.
Seifeddine Jameli, as known as Abou al-Qaaqaa, belonged to the Tunisian branch of the Islamic State (IS) group, Jund al-Khilafa (the soldiers of the caliphate), the ministry said in a statement.
He was killed overnight by special forces in the central region of Mount Mghilla, it said, adding that weapons were seized during the operation.
Since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia has been hit by an upsurge in jihadist violence in which dozens of police, soldiers and civilians have been killed.
Two attacks last year claimed by IS on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis and on a hotel near the Mediterranean resort of Sousse killed a total of 60 people, all but one of them foreign tourists.
The beheading of a teenage shepherd by jihadists as his sheep grazed on Mount Mghilla last November also horrified the country.
Elsewhere, a spokesman of a Libyan militia says two suicide bombings by the Islamic State group have killed 32 of the militia’s fighters.
Mohammed Shamia of the Misrata militia, which is loyal to Libya’s new UN-brokered unity government, told The Associated Press that the attack happened on Wednesday night.
He says two suicide bombers rammed their large vehicles packed with explosives into militia positions in the al-Washka and Bourayat al-Hassoun areas west of the coastal city of Sirte, an IS stronghold. Fifty militiamen were wounded in the attacks.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombings in a statement posted by its supporters on Twitter.
The international community and Western powers have pledged to support Libya’s UN-backed government and arm in order to fight the Islamic State group.
The United States has added the Islamic State group’s branches in Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia to its global terrorism blacklist, the State Department announced Thursday.
The three IS branches were declared “specially designated global terrorists,” which imposes sanctions and penalties on foreign persons who pose a serious risk of committing acts of terrorism that threaten US nationals or national security.
The State Department said the three groups emerged as IS branches in November 2014 when IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced he had accepted oaths of allegiance from fighters in Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Iraq announced Thursday that its forces have recaptured the western town of Rutba which had been held by the Islamic State jihadist group since 2014.
“The Joint Operations Command announces the complete liberation of the Rutba district,” it said in a statement.
Special forces, soldiers and police took part in the operation, the statement said.
Iraqi forces launched the drive to retake Rutba, located in western Anbar province along the main road to Jordan, on Monday.
IS overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in June 2014, and later made further advances in Anbar, seizing its capital Ramadi in 2015.
Iraqi forces have since regained significant ground from the jihadists, securing the Ramadi area earlier this year and retaking the town of Heet last month.
But parts of Anbar — including its second city Fallujah — are still under IS control, as is most of Nineveh province, to its north.
The US-led coalition, which provided air support for the Rutba operation, stopped short of saying the town was under the full control of Iraqi forces.
Asked if there were still IS fighters in the area, coalition spokesman Steve Warren said: “There’s still quite an amount.”
In the course of the operation, Iraqi forces encountered “light to moderate resistance”, he told AFP.
Rutba is a remote desert town, several hours away from Anbar’s major cities, but Warren expressed confidence the Iraqi forces would successfully hold it.
“They’ve got enough fighters, they’ve got tribal forces there, they’ll hold it just like they’ve held every single other thing they’ve taken,” he said.
In a briefing to Pentagon reporters on Wednesday, Warren described Rutba as a small town with “outsized strategic value”.
“Rutba lies on the main route between Baghdad and Jordan, and opening it will impact the economies of both Iraq and Jordan, and will deny (IS) a critical support zone as well,” he said.
The Iraqi government said earlier this month that the amount of land under IS control had shrunk to 14 percent of the national territory, from 40 percent in 2014.
The two major cities still under jihadist rule are Fallujah, which lies only 50 kms (30 miles) west of Baghdad, and Mosul, the capital of Nineveh.
The government and coalition had appeared to focus their planning on Mosul lately, a large northern city with a pre-war population estimated at around two million.
But forces from the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary organisation, which is dominated by Tehran-backed Shiite militias, have been massing around Fallujah in recent days.
The United States and its allies staged 17 strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on Wednesday in their latest daily attacks against the militant group, the coalition leading the operations said.
In a statement released on Thursday, the Combined Joint Task Force said 14 strikes in Iraq hit targets near nine cities, including Mosul, Kisik and Falluja, among others.
The strikes hit seven of the militant’s tactical units as well as two fighting positions, several fighting positions and weapons caches, the US-led task force said. One strike also damaged an oil tanker used by the group near Tal Afar, it added.
In Syria, three strikes near Manbij hit an Islamic State tactical unit, two fighting positions and a mortar system, according to the statement said.
NATO does not expect to formally join the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, even if it will cooperate on a practical and “niche” level, the US ambassador to the alliance said Wednesday.
“We’re not hung up on being declared a member or not. We’re simply interested in practical support,” Douglas Lute said ahead of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
In April US President Barack Obama told an audience in Germany that Washington needed “a strong Europe to bear its share of the burden” in the fight against the Islamic State jihadists.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in February — also at a NATO meeting in Brussels — that the 28 alliance members were exploring the possibility of NATO becoming a member of the anti-IS coalition itself.
Lute said the ministers meeting in Brussels will “ask the more practical question of, are there ways .. in capacity support and other niche capabilities .. that we can contribute?”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “We will discuss what more NATO can do to support Iraq. We are already training several hundred Iraqi officers in Jordan.
“We have received a request from (Iraqi) Prime Minister al-Abadi to expand our training mission into Iraq itself. And we will consider this request,” added the NATO chief.
The US ambassador also broached the possibility of training missions or support for the defence sector or army reform in Libya — if the new government asks for it — or in Tunisia.
NATO’s AWACS monitoring aircraft could also help provide intelligence about what is happening in the skies over Iraq or Syria — even if they only remain over Turkey, according to a diplomatic source.
Lute said that at this stage the anti-IS coalition does not need the alliance AWACS to be deployed in Syrian or Iraqi airspace, a prospect which would cause concern in certain European capitals.