A leading member in Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda party said on Saturday that a congress called for by the Salafist movement, Ansar al-Sharia, has been postponed to an unspecified date.
The news comes a day after the Tunisian government announced that it banned an annual meeting by the hardline Salafists, which was originally planned for Sunday.
“The congress is postponed to another date undecided yet,” Habib Al-Lawz, a leader from Ennahda party, told a local Radio station on Saturday.
Al-Lawz said the postponement of the congress came to avoid bloodshed. The decision was reached after talks between members of the Tunisian government, parliamentarians and members of Ansar al-Sharia.
Meanwhile, Tunisian security forces deployed in strength on Saturday after Ansar al-Sharia called on its hardline Islamist supporters to defy the government ban.
Police were present at tollbooths along the main highway from the capital to the central city of Kairouan where the movement vowed to hold Sunday’s gathering, AFP correspondents reported.
Inside Kairouan, helicopters hovered overhead and police checkpoints were set up. Special units were deployed in the square facing the mosque which is the venue for the congress, Reuters said.
A local police officer, declining to be named, told Reuters: “We have taken all measures to ensure the meeting does not go ahead... We will not allow those coming for this congress to enter the city.”
Meanwhile, maps were posted on Facebook that are close to the Salafist movement. The maps pinpointed the checkpoints and possible routes to avoid them.
Ansar al-Sharia urged its supporters to travel to the venue in groups in a bid to get past the police.
“We advise our brothers coming to Kairouan to travel in groups and not to be separated because the agents of the tyrant are blocking most intersections and provoking our brothers by showing their weapons,” it said on its Facebook page.
In Tunis, large numbers of police vans and army trucks were visible both in the city center and in neighborhoods that are regarded as Salafist strongholds.
As tensions mounted, a U.S. embassy travel advisory warned Americans against travelling to Kairouan, saying “large rallies and demonstrations are possible” if the congress goes ahead.
“There is the potential for disruption to traffic in the area of Kairouan and possible confrontations with security forces. The embassy recommends against all travel to Kairouan during this period.”
The Salafists have been blamed for a wave of violence across Tunisia, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in September that left four assailants dead.
Ansar al-Sharia is considered the most radical of the extremist groups that emerged after the 2011 revolution that ousted veteran strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The group’s fugitive leader, Saif Allah Bin Hussein, a former al-Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan, warned last week he would wage war against the government led by moderate Islamist party Ennahda, accusing it of policies in breach of Islam.
The interior ministry on Friday said Ansar al-Sharia posed a threat to public order as it confirmed the ban on the planned congress.
“We have decided to prohibit this gathering, which would be in violation of the law and because of the threat it represents to public order,” it announced.
Ahead of the ministry’s announcement, Ansar al-Sharia, which does not recognize the authority of the state, warned that it would hold the government responsible for any violence.
“We are not asking permission from the government to preach the word of God and we warn against any police intervention to prevent the congress from taking place,” spokesman Seifeddine Rais said.