Tunisia: Death toll up to 55 in clashes near Libyan border

The death toll from clashes between Tunisian forces and extremist attackers near the Libyan border has risen to 55, including 36 attackers

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The death toll from clashes between Tunisian forces and extremist attackers near the Libyan border has risen to 55, including 36 attackers, Tunisian Prime Minister Habid Essid said Tuesday.

Essid said seven civilians and 12 members of Tunisia’s security forces also died, and 17 others were injured.

“The attack that happened yesterday showed that our military and security forces were ready,” he told a press conference. “We won a battle, but we haven’t yet won the war on terror, and that war continues.”

No group immediately claimed responsibility for Monday’s attack in the city of Ben Guerdane, but websites affiliated with ISIS said the militants were handed a tough blow by Tunisian security forces. One website published more than 30 pictures showing militants’ bodies as well as weapons and munitions seized.

Essid said that about 50 gunmen - most of them Tunisians - took part to the attack. Only four out of the 36 attackers killed have been formerly identified. Essid did not give more details about the attackers’ background but said some came from Libya.

Tunisian forces have repeatedly clashed with extremists on the borders of Libya and Algeria in recent years, but Monday’s fighting was unusually bloody. Tunisia has been as a model of relative stability for the region since an uprising five years ago ushered in democracy and inspired Arab Spring protests against dictatorships across the region.

An uprising in neighboring Libya led to the ouster and killing of longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, but since then the country has fallen into chaos, allowing the Islamic State group to take control of several cities.

The divided country is ruled by two parliaments: an internationally recognized body based in the eastern city of Tobruk and a rival government, backed by Islamist-allied militias, that controls the capital, Tripoli.

Essid said the gunmen targeted a police station and military facilities in Ben Guerdane after launching their attack from a nearby mosque. He said attackers were arrested and gave information that led to the discovery of a weapons cache.

The prime minister also confirmed that the chief of the anti-terrorism brigade in Ben Guerdane was among those killed. He was killed in his house when he was preparing to go to work, at the beginning of the attack.

Tunisia is especially worried about the ISIS presence in Libya after dozens of tourists were killed in attacks in Tunisia last year. ISIS extremists claimed responsibility for those attacks, and Tunisian authorities said the attackers had been trained in Libya.

Last week, Tunisian security forces killed five heavily armed men in an hours-long firefight after they crossed into the country from Libya with a larger group. Tunisian security forces had been placed on alert based on “precise information” of possible border infiltrations following a Feb. 19 U.S. raid on an ISIS camp near the Libyan town of Sabratha, not far from the Tunisian border.

A militant wrote on an ISIS-affiliated website that the gunmen in Ben Guerdane were part of a group that withdrew from Libya because “they were under big pressure, live in a difficult situation and being sought after by everyone especially after last month’s U.S. airstrike.”