Tunisian president visits Algerian border where army is searching for militants

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Tunisia’s president visited a mountainous area near the border with Algeria on Tuesday where the army was hunting Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda, his office said.

“President Moncef Marzouki arrived Mount Chaambi to raise the morale of soldiers and check on the conduct of pursuit operations there,” an official in the president’s office told Reuters.

Earlier a spokesman for the Interior Ministry told a news conference that there were about a dozen militants in the city of al-Kef as well as militants in the area of Mount Chaambi.

“There are two groups, one in the Kef region with around 15 people and the other in Mount Chaambi with around 20 people,” interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said on Tuesday.

“There is a connection between the two groups, and the one in the Chaambi region has ties with the Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade, which is linked to al-Qaeda.

“We have isolated them, and yesterday we arrested someone who was supplying the Chaambi group” with food, the official added.

In December, the authorities announced the arrest of 16 militants belonging to the Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade, described as a cell of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in Tunisia’s Kasserine region, where Mount Chaambi is located.

But they had not until now confirmed a link between those arrested and the “terrorist group” hiding out in the remote Chaambi region that the security forces have been tracking since a deadly attack on a border post in December.

Last week, the army stepped up efforts to take out the group, which has placed homemade explosive devices around the mountainous terrain that have so far wounded 16 members of the security forces, some of whom had to have their legs amputated.

Tunisian troops have been using mortar fire to try and demine the area.

The authorities have given no information on the operations in Kef, a region about 100 kilometers to the north, where the second jihadist group is based.

Since the revolution that toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, radical Islamists suppressed by the former dictator have become increasingly assertive in Tunisia and have been blamed for a wave of deadly attacks.