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Tunisia holds unity rally after suspects in Bardo attack reported killed

Thousands of citizens marched through Tunis in a show of national unity to denounce armed groups

Tens of thousands of Tunisians marched through the capital in a show of solidarity against armed fighters on Sunday, after the government said its forces had killed nine members of a group suspected of carrying out this month's deadly Bardo Museum attack.

Among those killed by Tunisian security forces hours before the march was a lead suspect in the attack, Khaled Chaieb – also known as Abou Sakhr Lokman – believed to be a prominent Algerian fighter in Al-Qaeda’s North African arm, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Habib Essid and state media said.

The March 18 attack in Tunis killed 21 foreign tourists and a policeman, shaking a country that has been praised as a peaceful democratic model since leading the first of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.

A red-and-white sea of Tunisian crescent and star flags filled a major boulevard in Tunis where several world leaders, including French President Francois Hollande, joined a rally under the slogan "Le Monde est Bardo" (The World is Bardo), echoing the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) after a series of attacks in France left 17 dead months earlier.

France held a similar national unity march in January after the attacks by Al-Qaeda affiliates on a satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and a kosher supermarket. Tunisia was a protectorate of France for 75 years, until Tunisia’s liberation in 1956. Remnants of France’s colonial influence continue to affect nations across Africa today.

"Tunisia wanted France with them, and France is on the side of Tunisia, the origin of the Arab Spring, and now a victim of a hateful act," Hollande said, lauding the two nation’s relationship, just before his flight to Tunis.

Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was also due to take part in the demonstration, along with leaders from Palestine, Poland, Belgium, Libya and Algeria. Israel’s recently reelected Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who attended France’s unity march, did not attend Tunis’s commemorations.

Participants at Sunday’s demonstration – like their French counterparts in January – said Sunday’s rally in Tunis was a show of defiance in the face of a national security threat.

"We have shown we are a democratic people, Tunisians are moderate, and there is no room for terrorists here," said one of the demonstrators, Kamel Saad. "Today everyone is with us."

Thousands of police and soldiers were positioned around the capital.

One of the most secular countries in the Arab world, Tunisia has mostly avoided violence in the four years since the toppling of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. In contrast with Libya, Yemen and Syria, which have plunged into war and chaos, it has adopted a new constitution and held free elections.

But the Bardo massacre was one of the worst attacks in its history. Japanese, Polish, Spanish and Colombian visitors were among those killed in the attack, which the government says was aimed at destroying Tunisia's tourism industry – a mainstay of the national economy.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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