October 14, 2014 / 4:49 PM / 5 years ago

Tunisia says it thwarted jihadist attack before elections

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian security forces have arrested a group of Islamist militants, including two women, that planned to carry out attacks in the capital, Tunis, less than two weeks before parliamentary elections, authorities said on Tuesday.

Since its 2011 uprising, Tunisia has advanced toward full democracy and is seen as a model for the region. But the small North African country has also struggled with a rise in jihadists opposed to its transition.

Tunisians go to the polls on Oct. 26 for their second free parliamentary election since a 2011 revolt ended Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic rule. Presidential elections will follow in November.

“This terrorist cell with links with the banned group, Ansar al Sharia, planned to detonate a car bomb in order to assassinate a political figure,” said Mohamed Ali Aroui, an interior ministry spokesman, without giving further details.

But Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a prominent leader of the secular Republican Party, said that interior ministry had alerted him that he was targeted for assassination by a car bomb.

Last year, Tunisia plunged into a political crisis that lasted for months and almost derailed its democratic transition after the assassination of two secular leaders by militants.

The hardline Islamist movement Ansar al Sharia was banned after those attacks. The United States also brands the group a foreign terrorist organisation and blames it for a 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis.

Police arrested two women in Ansar Al Sharia, including one who had been responsible for the group’s media wing. Aroui said the woman had also been a contact for Abu Iyadh, the Ansar al Sharia leader who the official said has fled to Libya.

Officials said security forces had seized a truck-load of arms and cash coming from Libya toward Tunisia’s Kef mountains, where some jihadists are hiding out.

Tunisia has arrested some 1,500 suspected jihadists this year, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa told Reuters in interview last week, part of a security crackdown aimed at safeguarding the North African country’s fragile transition to democracy.

Among those held are hundreds of militants who fought in Syria’s war and who could pose a risk after they return to Tunisia, one of the most secular nations in the Arab world. 

Since April, Tunisia has also deployed thousands of troops in the Chaambi mountains along its border with Algeria to fight a small group of militants linked to ‘Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’, or AQIM, who are hiding out there.

Reporting By Tarek Amara; editing by Patrick Markey, Larry King

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