Eight police, two militants killed in Tunisia clash

TUNIS Wed Oct 23, 2013 12:36pm EDT

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TUNIS (Reuters) - At least eight Tunisian policemen and two Islamist militants were killed on Wednesday when they clashed during a raid by security forces in Sidi Bouzid in the south of the country, security sources and state television said.

Tunisian authorities say Ansar al-Sharia, one of the Islamist militant movements to emerge since the country's 2011 uprising, is behind a string of attacks on security forces.

Officials say it has ties to al Qaeda's North Africa affiliate.

Wednesday's violence came just days after security forces killed 10 militants blamed for attacking Tunisian police patrols in a remote area near the Algerian border and killing two officers.

Ansar al-Sharia is just one of the hardline Islamist groups based in North Africa. Tunisia's moderate Islamist-led government two months ago declared it a terrorist organization after blaming it for murdering two opposition leaders.

Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said last week the group's leaders has ties with other militant commanders in the region, saying it had profited from the chaos in neighboring Libya to send fighters there to train and acquire weapons.

Ansar al-Sharia's leader in Tunisia is a former al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan, who is accused of inciting his followers to attack the U.S. embassy compound in Tunis a year ago.

Other militant groups operating in North Africa include Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa or MUJWA, which was scattered earlier this year by the French offensive in Mali.

MUJWA recently announced it was joining forces with another group led by veteran Algerian Islamist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who masterminded the attack on Algeria's Amenas gas plant in January when nearly 40 foreign contractors were killed.

(Reporting By Tarek Amara; Writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Barry Moody)

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