Overstretched Tunisian army must focus on militant threat: Zbidi

Tunis Wed Mar 6, 2013 6:59am EST

Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi speaks during a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (not in picture) in Tunis July 30, 2012. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi speaks during a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (not in picture) in Tunis July 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

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Tunis (Reuters) - Tunisia's military is losing its edge after performing security duties for the past two years and should refocus on protecting national borders from Islamist militants, according to the outgoing defense minister.

"Readiness has decreased because of the lack of continuous training," Abdelkarim Zbidi told local Nesma television late on Tuesday, blaming this on the army's nationwide deployment since the fall of strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

"The normal place of the army is in the barracks and on the frontiers," Zbidi said, citing the need for vigilance against militants operating in regions bordering Libya and Algeria.

Fears of radical Islamist activity have grown in Tunisia since secular politician Chokri Belaid was assassinated on February 6. The authorities have arrested four hardline Salafi militants over the shooting, but say the actual killer is on the run.

In recent months, the army and security forces have clashed several times with al Qaeda-linked militants near the borders with Algeria and Libya. They have also found large arms caches.

Zbidi, an independent, said he was leaving his post due to political uncertainty and the absence of a date for elections - even though he was the consensus candidate of all political parties to stay on as defense minister in the next government.

Under Zbidi, who took over the defense portfolio shortly after Ben Ali's removal, the military helped keep public order while staying out of politics in the country whose peaceful uprising inspired other revolts around the Arab world.

Political sources say another independent, Abdelhak Lassoued, will be the next defense minister in the Islamist-led cabinet being formed by Prime Minister-designate Ali Larayedh.

Larayedh was interior minister in the previous government led by Hamadi Jebali, who quit after his own moderate Islamist Ennahda party rejected his plan to form a technocrat cabinet to prepare for elections and calm unrest after Belaid's killing.

Larayedh has yet to announce his cabinet line-up, but political sources have said diplomat Othman Jarandi would become foreign minister and Elyess Fakhfakh of the secular Ettakatol party would keep his post as finance minister.

They said at least 10 members of the outgoing cabinet would stay on, including Agriculture Minister Mohamed Ben Salem and Human Rights Minister Samir Dilou, who are both from Ennahda, as well as Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk, an independent.

The new coalition, set to include moderate Islamists, three secular parties and non-partisan figures, aims to restore stability and organize elections later this year.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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