At least 14 Tunisian soldiers were killed when gunmen with rocket-propelled grenades attacked two checkpoints in Tunisia’s remote south, perpetrating the deadliest strike on the North African country’s armed forces in recent history.
Since April, thousands of Tunisian soldiers have been deployed to the Chaambi mountain range bordering Algeria in an operation to flush out Al-Qaeda-linked armed fighters seeking refuge there. Some of the fighters they face fled France’s intervention in Mali last year.
Armed fighters ambushed the checkpoints, attacking with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire Wednesday night, Tunisia’s Defense Ministry said. They killed the soldiers as they were breaking their fast in observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Nine soldiers were burned by the grenades, according to Col. Maj. Souheil Chmengui, and five others were shot. Another soldier is missing after the attack, but authorities could not confirm if he had been kidnapped.
Fighters, calling themselves the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, claimed responsibility on a social media site for the attack. While the Tunisian government has not verified the claim, it did say the brigade does operate in the region and is tied to Al-Qaeda's North Africa wing, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Another armed group, Ansar Al-Sharia, listed as a "terrorist" organization by Washington, is also active in the area. Tunisian forces conducted several raids against the group after eight soldiers were captured and killed last year.
Tunisia has struggled with a growing rebel movement since a 2011 popular revolt ended the rule of autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the country began its fragile steps toward democracy.
Compounding fears of a mounting security threat, Tunisian officials also worry about arms and fighters spilling over from neighboring Libya, where the weak government is unable to impose order on brigades of former rebels and militias still fighting since the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Al Jazeera and Reuters