(Adds details of attacks, background)
TUNIS, July 16 (Reuters) - At least five Tunisian soldiers were killed after gunmen attacked military checkpoints near the Algerian border, where the army has been conducting an operation to flush out Islamist militant fighters, the TAP state news agency and a defense official said on Wednesday.
The gunmen, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, attacked the checkpoints in the Mount Chaambi area, according to the reports. Since April, thousands of Tunisian troops have been deployed to the area, where a small group of militants have been holed up, some since the French military operation drove al Qaeda-affiliated fighters out of Mali last year.
“They attacked military checkpoints in Mount Chaambi, there are dead and wounded in this attack with RPGs and rifles,” Rachid Hawela, a defense ministry spokesman said.
The TAP news agency said five soldiers were killed and nine more wounded in the attacks.
One of the Arab world’s most secular states, Tunisia has adopted a new constitution and a caretaker government has taken over as a way to ease tensions between a leading Islamist party and secular opponents after its 2011 revolt against autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
But the small North African country has struggled with the rise of hardline Islamist militants. Tunisian security officials estimate the numbers in the mountains are only in the dozens, but the threat of Islamist violence is clear.
One militant group, Ansar al Sharia, is branded a terrorist group by Washington and has clashed repeatedly with security forces. Some of those in Chaambi are linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda’s North Africa branch. (Reporting by Tarek Amara in Tunis; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Ken Wills)