Tunisian forces launched air and ground strikes on militants near the Algerian border on Friday after fierce overnight clashes in the area, which coincided with increased instability and political turmoil in the North African country.
Aircraft bombed caves in the Mount Chaambi area, where the military has been trying to track down militants since December, witnesses said on Friday.
“A major military operation with the participation of air and ground units began at dawn on Friday,” army spokesman Taoufik Rahmouni said, adding that the army had surrounded a “terrorist” group of 15 to 20 militants.
“The army has now imposed a security ring around the area and is searching nearby towns in the region. Until now there are no casualties or arrests (in Mount Chaambi),” he said.
The operation was launched in the same area where militants ambushed and killed eight soldiers on Monday in one of the deadliest attacks on Tunisian security forces in decades. The gunmen slit the throats of some of their victims.
Tunisia’s conservative-led government is grappling with rising instability and a mounting protest movement organized by the secular opposition that is demanding its resignation. Rival rallies to support the ruling coalition have also been growing.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, who belongs to the conservative Ennahda party, will discuss the security situation and the political crisis with opposition parties and other groups on Saturday, his office said. He is then expected to address the public.
An Algerian security source said that the militants in Mount Chaambi include Tunisians, Libyans and Algerians.
“They are heavily armed, likely with weapons from Libya,” the source said. “We will do our best to support Tunisia but not intervene on its territory.”