Tunisia says it foiled plot to divide country into three emirates

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Tunisian authorities have dismantled a plot by extremist Salafi Muslims to slice up the North African country into three Islamic emirates, a top security official said Wednesday.

Security forces that have been battling al-Qaeda-linked extremists also disrupted jihadist plots in recent weeks to assassinate political figures and carry out bombings in central Tunisia and near the capital, Tunis, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said on Mosaique FM radio.

In the course of interrogating terror suspects rounded up in recent months, authorities uncovered a “plot aiming to divide up the country in three emirates - one in the north, another in the center, and the third in the south,” said Ben Jeddou, who took up his post six months ago.

Since then, Ben Jeddou said he has tallied around 300 arrests in terrorism case files being prosecuted by investigating magistrates. Authorities, culling information from questioning of those suspects, now believe that about 30 alleged terrorists are currently holed up in Tunisia's western mountains including Kamel Gadhgadhi, the man suspected of killing left-wing opposition legislator Chokri Belaid in February.

Those in hiding are believed to be members of the banned al-Qaeda-linked extremist group Ansar al-Shariah, Ben Jeddou said. Sixteen of them are believed to be in Mont Semmama, while the other 14 are said to be in Mont Chaambi - both near the western town of Kasserine, he said.

“We identified them all thanks to their arrested accomplices,” he said. When it comes to Gadhgadhi, authorities “will surely end up catching (him) dead or alive.”

The minister also said Tunisia's most famous militant, Seifallah Ben Hassine, the founder of Ansar al-Shariah who is also known as Abu Yadh, is currently hiding in Libya - where he said the group has training camps, notably in the volatile city of Derna. Despite an international arrest warrant against him, Ben Jeddou acknowledged an unstable security situation in Libya has made apprehending him difficult.

Tunisia, now headed by an Islamist-led government, is struggling through a political transition nearly three years after the pro-democracy uprising that ousted long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and set off the chain-reaction of Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East.

The killings of Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, a leading opposition figure who was gunned down on July 25, plunged Tunisia into its current crisis. Dozens of opposition lawmakers quit, freezing efforts to write a new constitution, and street protests and political paralysis have crippled the country. Ansar al-Shariah was allegedly behind both killings, as well as an assault last year on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.

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