Dozens escape from Tunisian prison in sign of insecurity
TUNIS (Reuters) - Forty-nine inmates escaped from a Tunisian prison after overpowering guards, a senior official said on Monday, in a further sign of faltering security as a political crisis over popular discontent with Islamist rule festers.
The North African state, fount of the Arab uprisings of 2011, is locked in a standoff between its Islamist-led government and secular opposition that could be decisive for the success of its experiment in democracy.
Prisons director-general Habib Sboui said 49 inmates broke out of the prison in the town of Gabes on Sunday evening, and that 12 were recaptured a little later.
"They escaped in an ambush in which guards were assaulted, without any shooting," Sboui said in a statement. It was believed the escapees were all common criminals, he said.
Still, the breakout attested to deteriorating security that has been exploited by Islamist militants with a series of attacks, two of which resulted in the killing of two opposition secular politicians that triggered the political crisis.
Tunisia has jailed hundreds of Islamist militants over the past year in connection with attacks.
Interpol issued a global security alert on August 3 advising its 190 member states to increase vigilance against attacks after a series of prison breaks in Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, some pulled off with the help of al Qaeda.
In July, more than 1,000 inmates escaped a prison near Benghazi in eastern Libya, a stronghold of radical Islamists.
In 2011, thousands of prisoners escaped in Tunisia during the nationwide disorder that followed the fall of autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ali to a popular revolt.
Instability has worsened as jihadi militants have stepped up attacks. They killed eight soldiers in an ambush in July, one of the deadliest attacks on Tunisian security forces in decades.
The government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party and under pressure from secular critics, has responded with raids and air strikes on jihadi mountain redoubts.
Ennahda, which governs in coalition with two smaller secular parties, has come under popular criticism for promoting an Islamist agenda, mismanaging the economy and showing perceived laxity towards radical Muslims.
The secular opposition, angered by two assassinations in its ranks and emboldened by Egypt's army-backed ouster of an Islamist president in July, has held frequent mass protests in a bid to topple the government.
(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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