By Monia Ghanmi
Clashes between the Tunisian army and armed elements near Bir Ali, west of Sfax, last week left two suspects dead, a third in custody and five officers injured.
The February 1st incident revealed the existence of a weapons smuggling network in Tunisia from the south of the country to the north.
Presidential spokesman Adnen Mnasser confirmed the news in a press conference last Friday. More than 20 people were involved, he said, but their political identities or objectives remained undetermined.
Mnasser did not deny the possibility of the existence of other smuggling networks in light of the continued accumulation of weapons on Libyan territory.
“There is intensive intelligence follow-up of this group, and it may not be the only group and not the only operation for smuggling weapons into Tunisia,” he said.
Mnasser confirmed that the source of the weapons was Libya, which is witnessing widespread arms proliferation following the fall of Moamer Kadhafi. “Libya contains large quantities of arms, and this issue concerns all its neighbouring countries,” he said. “The presidency is paying special attention to this matter.”
With regard to armed incidents in the Bir Ali Ben Khalifa area of central Tunisia, Mnasser said that the events were expected because the danger of smuggling Libyan arms to Tunisia existed before the revolution and had doubled afterward.
Interior Minister Ali Larayedh confirmed in a press conference on February 2nd that along with the newly uncovered smuggling group, security forces seized Kalashnikov weapons and ammunition from neighbouring Libya.
“At the moment we cannot identify them, but it is a serious incident and any side that may be behind this operation could represent a threat to Tunisia’s security,” the interior minister said.
While the interior minister did not identify what group the smugglers belonged to, Tunisian newspaper Assabah reported last Friday that the gunmen were members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The newspaper said that the militants were planning to attack sensitive targets in Tunisia, without giving further details on these goals. It added that the militants “have a remarkable capacity for resistance, self-defence and the use of arms”, and that they had “a professional exchange of fire with army units and National Guard vanguard teams”.
In turn, Tunisian daily al-Chourouk reported that authorities found $14,000 on the insurgents, as well as “a box containing a large quantity of explosives of the TNT type usually used in al-Qaeda bombings”.
But interim Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali downplayed the threat of this armed group, calling it an isolated incident.
“It will not come to pass in Tunisia, no matter who stands behind it and whatever the ideology,” Jebali told reporters last Friday. “The Tunisian people are a civilised and cultured people who do not accept such behaviour.”
“I do not know why we use arms and violence when we live in a democracy. This irresponsible behaviour will not be accepted, as it’s not by force of arms that we impose views,” the prime minister added.
Last week’s security breach was not the first in post-revolution Tunisia. Last year security forces clashed with armed elements in the city of Rouhia near the Algerian border. One officer was killed in the attack.
In light of the widening network of arms smuggling, Tunisian authorities strengthened security measures at the Ras Jedir border crossing between Tunisia and Libya, which reopened Saturday after being closed for a short time for security reasons.
Interim President Moncef Marzouki said at a February 2nd meeting with security officials that there was a need to strengthen procedures to control the border, bolster control and put in place all the capabilities needed to support the security presence on the frontier.