Policeman, two militants killed in clash in Tunisia

TUNIS Tue Feb 4, 2014 4:08am EST

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TUNIS (Reuters) - A Tunisian policeman and two Islamist militants were killed during a police raid on a house in Tunis where weapons, explosives and suicide bomb belts were found, the Interior Ministry said on Tuesday.

A gunbattle erupted late on Monday when police surrounded a house in Raoued, a northern suburb of the capital, in an attempt to arrest a group of suspected militants hiding there.

"They had suicide bomb belts and explosive material and they were well-armed," Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said, without naming the group to which the men belonged.

Since last year, Tunisian armed forces have cracked down on the hardline Islamist Ansar al-Sharia faction, which Washington has listed as a terrorist organization and whose leader has declared allegiance to al Qaeda.

Tunisia formally celebrates a new constitution on Friday, with French President Francois Hollande and other dignitaries invited to the ceremony to mark the North African country's progress to democracy.

Three years after its uprising inspired revolts across the Arab world, Tunisia is led by a new caretaker government that took over after the moderate Islamist Ennahda party stepped down in a compromise to end a political crisis.

The threat of Islamist militancy is among the new government's main challenges. A suicide bombing at a beach resort late last year - the first such attack in a decade - underscored Tunisia's vulnerability to jihadi violence.

Tunisian militants have used the turmoil in neighboring Libya to get weapons and training. Some have traveled to Syria to fight for Islamist rebel groups in the civil war there.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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