Prime Minister Ali Larayedh insisted on Wednesday that Tunisia’s security situation was improving and that fugitive jihadist groups with links to Al-Qaeda would be defeated.
“The establishment of security in the country is progressing… But there are some small groups that continue to aggravate the situation,” Larayedh told the national assembly.
“We will pursue our confrontation with the violent terrorist groups… dismantle their structures and bring them to justice,” said the former interior minister and stalwart of the ruling Islamist party Ennahda.
He said the days were numbered of the jihadist group being hunted since last week in the Mount Chaambi region, close to the border with Algeria.
“The Chaambi group is surrounded, and despite their losses the security units will thwart the group’s goals.”
The army intensified its sweep a week ago for the militants hiding out in the remote border region. Officials have said the militants, blamed for a deadly attack on a frontier post in December, number around 20.
No direct clashes with the group have been reported, but hand-made bombs planted in the rugged mountainous area have so far wounded at least 16 members of the security forces, five of whom lost legs.
The interior ministry admitted on Tuesday that the Chaambi group, and another being pursued in the Kef region around 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the north, have links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Opposition MPs strongly criticised Larayedh on Wednesday for failing to clamp down on radical Islamist groups when he was interior minister between December 2011 and March 2013, a period that saw a sharp rise in their activity.
“We are heading towards civil war,” said Hichem Hosni, an independent MP.
Samir Bettaieb, a lawmaker from the centrist Democratic Group, slammed the authorities’ inability to take control of mosques that had fallen under the sway of the hardline Salafist movement.
“There is a lack of policy for controlling mosques… The Chaambi terrorists can take refuge there,” he said, while demanding that the army deploy along the Algerian and Libyan borders where there has been a surge in smuggling and arms trafficking.
Larayedh insisted “the majority of arms caches” belonging to Tunisia’s jihadist groups had been seized and that there were “no arms trafficking networks” in the country, only “isolated individuals” who supply them with weapons.
Since the revolution in January 2011 that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has seen a proliferation of militant Islamist groups that were suppressed under the former dictator.
Those groups have been blamed for a wave of violence, notably an attack on the US embassy last September and the assassination of leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid in February.