TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia on Monday carried out air strikes on Islamist militants holed up in the Mount Chaambi area near the Algerian border, an army source said, stepping up a campaign against radical jihadis under pressure from the secular opposition.
The government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, has been grappling with a protest movement whose secular leaders have called for tougher action against Islamist militants they say threaten Tunisia’s fragile young democracy.
Tunisian warplanes bombed caves in and around Mount Chaambi where the military has been trying to track down jihadi fighters since December, witnesses and the army source said.
The operations were carried out in a region where militants ambushed and killed eight soldiers last month in one of the deadliest attacks on Tunisian security forces in decades.
The army source said security forces had killed several militants and captured at least four others in the same region on Sunday. One of the detained men admitted to taking part in the killing of the eight soldiers, local media said.
They said the militant was found in the possession of video footage taken with a mobile phone showing some of the soldiers having their throats slit.
Police said they killed two hardline Islamists in Tunis and arrested six others earlier this month, foiling an attempt to kill a prominent politician in the coastal city of Sousse. Several bombs targeting police were defused.
Tunisia is in the throes of its worst political turmoil since autocratic president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in early 2010 in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings. The Instability has worsened as jihadi militants step up attacks.
Angered by the assassination of two of its leaders and emboldened by last month’s ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president by the military, Tunisia’s opposition is demanding the resignation of the Islamist-led government.
It also wants to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, which is weeks away from finishing a draft constitution and election law.
Opposition secularists aim to announce an alternative “salvation government” next week, a challenge to Ennahda’s coalition that could make it harder to negotiate a political compromise, and have called for a mass rally on Tuesday.
Jilani Hammami, a senior opposition Salvation Front member, said the group had made progress in deciding the line-up of its alternative cabinet and that it would make important announcements during Tuesday’s rally.
Ennahda party chief Rachid Ghannouchi told Reuters last week that it was open to dialogue but that removing Prime Minister Ali Larayedh was out of the question.
Hussein Abassi, head of Tunisia’s powerful union federation, said he have talks with Ghannouchi later on Monday to seek a way out of the political crisis.
The head of the North African state’s transitional parliament suspended the legislature’s work a week ago until the government starts talks with the opposition.
Editing by Mark Heinrich