by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Tunisian forces have launched a second offensive against militants near the Algerian border in a year, with artillery and helicopters carrying out air strikes around the country’s highest mountain.
The offensive, which began Friday, is aimed at eliminating the Oqba Ibn Nafaa brigade, an armed Islamist group which numbers at least 140 fighters. On July 29, the militants ambushed a Tunisian army patrol near Jebel Chaambi, killing eight soldiers and stealing their weapons. On Sunday, two soldiers were killed when a tank near Jebel Chaambi was hit by a mine.
The July 29 ambush was one of the worst attacks against Tunisian forces in decades.
The patrol “was decimated,” Adnan Mancer, a presidential spokesman, told reporters after the attack. The Chaambi mountain sits between the Algerian border and the city of Kasserine.
Days of sporadic gunfire between militants and Tunisian forces were reported in the following days. On Friday, Tunisian forces launched air strikes and sent more soldiers into the area. Taoufik Rahmouni, an army spokesman, vowed the military would “clean up” the mountain, according to AFP. The Oqba Ibn Nafaa brigade is a Tunisian band with alleged ties to al-Qaida-linked Algerian fighters. Algerian troops have also beefed up its presence on the other side of the border.
The violence is already worse than another operation carried out earlier this year. Three people were killed in May and June as Tunisian forces attempted to clear the mountainous region. The military declared the area clear in late June, but now the militants are back — if they ever really went away.
Also, in the capital, Tunisian forces were targeted in recent days by an improvised bomb — the first time such an attack has been reported there. No one was harmed in the blast. Tunisian troops also killed on alleged terror suspect on Sunday during a raid in Tunis.
“One of the members of the group was eliminated in an exchange of fire, and four were arrested,” the interior ministry said in a statement.
Tunisia is not Egypt The fighting is a major escalation in a country that’s largely been spared the kind of violence which affected other states during the Arab Spring.
Militants have used the border areas with Algeria to stage attacks, and there have been sporadic fighting between the militants and the Tunisian military — but the violence is a magnitude less compared to the destructive civil war in Syria, Libya’s civil war and its uncertain aftermath, and the street-fighting and shootings of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators by Egyptian forces.
Tunisia’s military is also one of the smallest North African armed forces — its 27,000 personnel would amount to a mere five percent of Egypt’s military. It’s also largely supplied by the United States and, particularly, France. (Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom are also other major exporters of military equipment to Tunisia.) The Tunisian military’s training, doctrine and organization is heavily influenced by France. The armed forces also have significantly less sway in politics than in Egypt.
The reason this is important? Tunisia is grappling with protests demanding the Islamist-led government to step down, on top of a political crisis sparked by the assassination of Mohammed Brahmi, a left-wing opposition politician. Brahmi is believed to have been killed by Salafist extremists who also killed secular politician Chokri Belaid in February — both with the same gun. The suspect is alleged arms smuggler Aboubaker al-Hakim.
“I don’t expect a full-blown Algerian-style insurgency or an Egyptian-style military coup,” noted Michael Totten, an observer of Tunisian politics, at World Affairs. “Nor is a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in the cards. Tunisia is not a police state, and Ennahda [Tunisia’s governing Islamist party] admits it’s afraid of the army.”
But a weakening economy, combined with the recent political slayings of opposition figures, have turned out thousands of anti-Ennahda demonstrators into the streets.
“Unlike Egypt, the army in Tunisia does not have the same tentacles that stretch to every sphere of life,” wrote Hashem Ahelbarra of Al Jazeera. “Former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, chose not to build a strong army for fear it might turn against him. He relied instead on police brutality to maintain his grip on power.” Hopefully it won’t make a turn for the worst.