Tunisian army shells militant mountain hideouts
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's army has shelled militant hideouts near the Algerian border as part of a campaign against hardline Islamists seeking to destabilize the North African country's fragile transition to democracy.
Troops fired heavy artillery after spotting suspicious movements in the Mount Chaambi area on Sunday, army spokesman Taoufiq Rahmouni told the state news agency TAP. It was unclear if there were any casualties.
Concerns about militant violence are increasing as Tunisia takes its final steps to full democracy, three years after its revolution that inspired the "Arab Spring" revolts in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria.
The Tunisian military have repeatedly hit Chaambi, a remote mountainous region a few kilometers (miles) from Algeria, since the start of 2013 after militants began trying to establish a refuge base there.
"The number of terrorists hiding there is around 25 or 30," Rahmouni said.
Militants, mainly from the Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia whose leader has declared allegiance to al Qaeda, have emerged since the Tunisian uprising in early 2011 ousted autocratic leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisia's police last week arrested seven suspected ultra-conservative Islamist militants, accusing them of threatening attacks during New Year celebrations in Kasserine, the closest city to Mount Chaambi.
The country's Islamist-led government declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization last year after blaming it for the assassination of two opposition leaders.
Militants have since clashed with police in raids and a suicide bomber blew himself up late last year at a beach resort in the first such attack in Tunisia in a decade.
Tunisia's ruling Islamist party Ennahda has agreed to step down under a deal that will see parties finish the constitution, set a date for elections and name an electoral council before a non-political caretaker government takes over.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; editing by Patrick Markey and Alister Doyle)