Tunisian police arrest Islamists threatening New Year celebrations

TUNIS Mon Dec 30, 2013 6:18am EST

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police arrested seven Salafists, or ultra-conservative Islamists, in the western town of Kasserine on Sunday, local radio reported, as authorities feared radical Islamists may be planning attacks during New Year celebrations.

Kasserine is the closest town to the remote area of Mount Chambi, stormed earlier this year by the army and police to try and track down more than 30 suspected al Qaeda-linked militants. It is near the Algerian border.

Tunisian authorities have stepped up checks in the region, fearing militant Islamists may be planning attacks during New Year celebrations.

The seven Salafists arrested on Sunday evening were distributing leaflets banning New Year celebrations and threatened bakeries selling cakes for the occasion, according to two local radio reports.

One of those arrested was carrying photos on his mobile phone of a militant arrested in Mount Chambi last May when the Tunisian army stormed the area, a local security source told Mosaique Radio.

Mount Chambi, Tunisia's highest point, is around 220 km southwest of the capital Tunis and just a few kilometers from the Algerian border. Conditions are rugged and most roads in the area are unmade.

The Tunisian Interior Ministry could not be reached for a comment.

New Year celebrations used to be a big event in Tunisia, the most secular country in the Arab world, but they have faded since the revolution that toppled President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011, paving the way for the moderate Islamist Ennahda party to take power.

After a recent political crisis over the role of Islam in politics, the Ennahda party agreed to resign and will hand over to a caretaker government by January 14, the third anniversary of Ben Ali's fall.

Ultra-conservative Salafists - keen to impose an Islamic state - returned from exile or prison after Ben Ali was toppled.

Last week, Tunisian police seized 60kg of gold, worth around $2.3 million, as they checked vehicles for arms and militants on one of the main road links between the north and south of the country but authorities said it was too early to say if the gold had come from or was going to terrorist groups.

(Reporting By Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Susan Fenton)

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