Women and children were caught up Thursday in a police siege of a home near the Tunisian capital where security forces were fighting a gunbattle with “terrorists” in which a policeman died.
The shootout came amid heightened security for fear of an upsurge in jihadist violence in the runup to a parliamentary election on Sunday, the first since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution.
At least two women and an unknown number of children were inside the house in the town of Oued Ellil on the outskirts of Tunis where a group was exchanging gunfire with security forces, the interior ministry said.
“There are at least two men, at least two women and children (in the house). We also have information on the presence of explosives,” ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said.
“We have asked that they send out the children and women,” he said.
Police have been besieging the house for hours, exchanging fire with what authorities described as a “terrorist group”.
One policeman was killed in the firefight.
Aroui did not describe the women and children as hostages, saying one of the women was the “wife of one of the terrorists”.
“Our agent died of a bullet wound in the eye sustained in clashes with a terrorist group,” a police official told AFP at the scene.
With security beefed up ahead of the election, Aroui told Mosaique FM radio police had also clashed earlier Thursday with two “terrorists” in Kebili, 500 kilometres (300 miles) south of Tunis.
The suspects were arrested after killing a private security guard in the gunfight, he said.
The operation in Oued Ellil was launched based on information extracted from the two suspects, said Aroui.
The suspects had been “preparing operations in the area,” he said, adding that two Kalashnikov assault rifles had been seized.
Elsewhere, two soldiers were lightly wounded in a roadside bomb blast in Sakiet Sidi Yussef near the Algerian border, defence ministry spokesman Belhassen Oueslati said.
The parliamentary election is seen as crucial to restoring stability in the North African nation, the cradle of the Arab Spring revolutionary movements.
Since the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has seen a proliferation of Islamists suppressed under the former autocratic president and the emergence of militant groups.
The jihadists have been blamed for a wave of attacks, including last year’s assassination of two leftist politicians whose murders plunged the country into a protracted political crisis.
– Plots foiled –
Jihadist groups have in the past three years killed dozens of Tunisian soldiers and police, especially in violence in remote mountain areas on the border with Algeria.
The government has ordered the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers and police for election day.
On Monday, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said the authorities had foiled plots to bomb factories and attack foreign missions.
In an interview with AFP, the leader of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist movement said the country’s transition to democracy served as an example of how to defeat extremists such as the Islamic State jihadist group.
“The success of the Tunisian experience is in the international interest, especially in the fight against extremism and the fight against Islamic State and similar groups,” Ennahda head Rached Ghannouchi said.
“The Tunisian model is the alternative to the Daesh model… This Tunisian model… brings together Islam and secularism, Islam and democracy, Islam and freedom for women,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group which has seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.
“One of the best ways to fight terrorism is to advocate moderate Islam because terrorism is based on an extremist interpretation of Islam,” said Ghannouchi, whose party has emerged as the leading political force in Tunisia since the fall of Ben Ali.