Heavy clashes between Tunisian security forces and Libya-based jihadists killed at least 51 people on Monday near the border between the two countries, Tunisia’s interior ministry said, fueling concerns that Libya’s political chaos is spilling into its more stable neighbor.
Tunisian security forces killed at least 35 jihadists after the extremists launched coordinated morning raids on a military barracks and a police station in the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane, the interior ministry said in a statement. Ben Guerdane is a reputed way station for Tunisian jihadists making the journey to join Islamic State affiliates operating in Libya.
A soldier, police and national guardsmen were also killed in the shootout, along with seven civilians including a 12-year-old girl, the ministry said.
Libya is a focus of concern for Western policy makers in countries leading the fight against Islamic State five years after the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi created a political vacuum.
The Sunni Muslim extremist group occupies stretches of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline and the city of Sirte, Mr. Gadhafi’s birthplace, and appears to view the increasingly unstable country as an area of expansion after sustaining defeats in its self-declared caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq. Islamic State leaders recently urged new recruits to head to Libya instead of to its traditional strongholds.
U.S. forces are gradually expanding an aerial bombing campaign against the group there. Last month, American jet fighters bombed a training camp near the capital Tripoli, killing some 40 Islamic State fighters.
Tunisia has placed its border with Libya on high surveillance with support from the U.S., Germany and the U.K. and is building a 122-mile fence to stop cars from crossing into its territory.
Considered a success story of the so-called 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisia’s high unemployment rates have since made it a fertile recruiting ground for Islamic State and other extremist groups.
Local residents said several of the jihadists participating in Monday’s attacks were Tunisians from Ben Guerdane itself.
“We ran away [from the fighting] and later we found bodies of dead jihadists that we can recognize,” said Hedi, a witness. “They knew their way around very well, just like locals we haven’t seen in a long time.” He said 70 to 80 assailants had used the Islamic call to prayer as a signal to attack. The ministry didn’t elaborate as to how many jihadists had participated.
The town has sustained itself for decades through a black-market economy of heavily subsidized goods brought in from Libya. But in recent years, the town became an important way station for young people seeking to join Islamic State affiliates in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
The same loose controls at the border that eased the smuggling of goods became key to moving people from all over Tunisia into Libya.
Tunisian authorities began to clamp down on the porous crossing last year, when gunmen who they say had been trained in Libyan Islamic State camps carried out two separate assaults that killed dozens of tourists. The attacks were claimed by Islamic State.[Source: The Wall Street Journal]