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New clashes erupt as Tunisian forces battle extremist gunmen

Published 09/03/2016

Tunisian soldiers search for attackers still at large on the outskirts of Ben Guerdane (AP)
Tunisian soldiers search for attackers still at large on the outskirts of Ben Guerdane (AP)

Extremist gunmen raiding a construction site in search of food have battled with Tunisian security forces, leaving a soldier and two of the attackers dead in the area's third day of fighting.

A total of 45 assailants have been reported killed since Monday in an operation officials said is likely to continue.

Militants have been under pressure with government raids and efforts to track their safe houses.

The latest gun battle around Ben Guerdane comes as security forces supported by helicopters are trying to track down armed attackers who are thought to be holed up in uninhabited houses.

In the latest statement, the interior and defence ministries announced the new fighting at the construction site had raised the death toll, and said the hunt for jihadis continues after the exceptionally violent attacks on Monday and late Tuesday that killed a dozen members of the security forces and seven civilians around Ben Guerdane.

Information from seven arrested attackers led security forces to arms depots, authorities said.

Prime Minister Habib Essid said on Tuesday that some 50 people took part in the attack, most of them Tunisians. However, not all bodies have yet been identified.

"We know that the monitoring, verifying, and follow-up operations require time, maybe days," said Khaled Chouket, the Tunisian government spokesman.

Websites affiliated with IS said militants were handed a tough blow by Tunisian security forces.

Tunisia has been a model of relative stability for the region since an uprising five years ago ushered in the democratic process and inspired Arab Spring protests against dictatorships across the region.

The Tunisian prime minister said on Tuesday that the attackers wanted to take control of the military barracks in Ben Guerdane, police posts and the National Guard post. He said without elaborating that their goal was to set up an "emirate of Daesh" - another name for the Islamic State group.

French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who is in Cairo, called for a Libyan political deal and a UN-backed unity government as a way to combat the Islamic State group.

"The Islamic State is expanding in north Africa, because of the Libyan divisions," Mr Ayrault said.

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