A roadside bomb killed two Tunisian soldiers who were hunting Al-Qaeda-linked militants Thursday in a mountainous region near the Algerian border - the first military deaths from enemy fire in a campaign that began in December.
The explosion struck a military vehicle as it passed through the village of Doghra in the Jebel Chaambi mountain region, army spokesman Brig. Gen. Mokhtar Ben Nasr said. The blast killed a chief warrant officer and a corporal, and wounded two other soldiers.
Tunisia has not suffered from armed extremist groups to the extent of neighboring Algeria. But after the French military intervention earlier this year in northern Mali scattered Al-Qaeda-linked groups, some have taken refuge in remote parts of Tunisia, the government says.
The ministry described the bomb as a “serious development” in the campaign against the militants and urged residents to cooperate.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said in a news conference during the visit of his Turkish counterpart that despite the rugged terrain, the search for the militants would continue.
“Our position in the fight against terrorism and criminality will not change,” he said. “We will pursue the terrorists on Jebel Chaambi until their group is dismantled and we catch those supporting them.”
Since the discovery of a cell in December, the government has been conducting operations in the remote mountainous regions and has arrested around 45 people, mostly on charges of aiding the militants.
Around 20 soldiers have been injured since late April by the roadside bombs in the Jebel Chaambi area, Tunisia’s highest mountain. On Monday, an officer was killed by friendly fire.
An anonymous soldier told Mosaique FM radio that there weren’t enough troops and resources committed to the search - only 280 soldiers involved.
Much of Tunisia’s army is being used to protect government institutions and public buildings under the emergency law in place since the overthrow of the secular dictatorship in 2011. The country shares porous desert borders with neighboring Algeria and Libya.
Tunisia has seen a rise in ultraconservative Muslims known as salafists pushing for a greater piety in society. Authorities say the most aggressive of these groups, Ansar al-Shariah, has links to the militants, whom officials have also linked to the February assassination of a left-wing opposition politician.
Roadside bomb kills 2 Tunisian soldiers