Last updated: 18 May, 2011

Tunisia forces in shootout with Al-Qaeda suspects

Suspected Libyan Al-Qaeda militants exchanged fire with security forces in Tunisia Wednesday, leaving two alleged militants and a Tunisian colonel dead, security officials and the government said.

The suspected militants were wearing belts of explosives and were “terrorists, strongly suspected of belonging to the Al-Qaeda network,” a Tunisian security official said.

The official refused to give the nationalities of the suspects but another security source said they were carrying Libyan passports.

The interior ministry said three “terrorists” had opened fire on the Tunisian forces in Rouhia, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of Tunis.

Two were killed and the other was able to escape, it said in a statement, also not giving their nationalities.

A Tunisian colonel was shot dead, it said. Another security source said a soldier had also died.

A guard called security forces after becoming suspicious about the men, the source told AFP.

When they arrived, “two Libyans started to shoot and there was an exchange of fire between the army and these two men,” the source said.

A Tunisian soldier and a colonel were killed as well as “these two Libyans who had on them Libyan passports.”

The guard was helping the men, who had arrived from Sbiba close to the city of Kasserine, which is near the border with Algeria, to carry their luggage, the source said.

He “was surprised by the weight of their luggage and alerted the police and the army,” he said.

The interior ministry said “special units of the national guard and the army with the aid of some citizens were able around 6:55 am to uncover three armed terrorists in the Rouhia region.”

“These terrorists fired on units of the army and the national guard, wounding three soldiers with live bullets, one of whom, a colonel, died,” it said.

“Two of these terrorists were killed while a third was able to escape.”

A resident confirmed the incident and said two civilians were hurt in the gunfight, one of them seriously.

Tunisia said Sunday it had detained an Algerian and a Libyan in possession of explosives in its first arrests of suspected members of Al-Qaeda’s north African offshoot, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

It had earlier announced the arrest of two Libyans who came from Algeria and were trying to return to their country carrying a homemade bomb, according to officials.

This discovery led the government to appeal to Tunisian to report any suspicious behaviour or “sheltering of foreign nationals”.