Tunisia announced on Friday that it had arrested 16 men suspected of belonging to a group with ties to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in the western regions of Kasserine and Jendouba near the Algerian border.
“We have discovered a terrorist group linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in a training camp run by three Algerians close to AQIM leader Abou Moussab Abdel Wadoud,” in the Kasserine region, Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh told reporters.
He said the security forces, who have been hunting for gunmen responsible for an attack in western Tunisia earlier this month that killed a policeman, arrested eight people in Kasserine.
Weapons, ammunition, explosives, binoculars, maps and military uniforms were seized during the operation, Laarayedh said, with most of the weapons thought to have come from Libya.
The group in Kasserine was active in recruiting and training young Islamist extremists in AQIM camps in Algeria and Libya, the minister said.
People supplying the camp in Mount Chaambi, near Kasserine, 300 kilometres (180 miles) southwest of Tunis, were among those arrested.
The military training camp was created in order to develop “a jihadist organisation capable of carrying out violent actions with the aim of imposing sharia Islamic law” in Tunisia, Laarayedh added.
Eight other extremists, including three Libyans, were arrested in the Jendouba region in northwest Tunisia, he said, and security forces were still searching for Islamist suspects in the hills north of Ain Drahem, on the border.
Laarayedh was unable to confirm the existence of formal links between the two dismantled cells and Tunisia’s hardline Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, but he said some of those arrested had taken part in their protests.
Tunisia has been rocked by violence blamed on Salafists since last year’s revolution, culminating in an attack on the US embassy in Tunis and a neighbouring American school in September that left four people dead and dozens wounded.
President Moncef Marzouki, in an interview this month, expressed concern about weapons falling into the hands of Islamists across North Africa since the fall of Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.