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Tunisia arrests 63 terror suspects, tightens security around militant hideouts - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Tunisian military band members perform during a symbolic funeral for soldiers killed by terrorists in the Chaambi Mountains earlier in the week, at the independence martyrs' quarter in the Sejoumi cemetery in the capital Tunis on July 18, 2014. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)

Tunisian military band members perform during a symbolic funeral for soldiers killed by terrorists in the Chaambi Mountains earlier in the week, at the independence martyrs’ quarter in the Sejoumi cemetery in the capital Tunis on July 18, 2014. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)

Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Tunisian security forces have arrested 63 terror suspects in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack which left over a dozen army soldiers dead, an official spokesman said on Saturday.

In a statement, the Ministry of Interior said it had carried out a wide-scale security operation in the areas of Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and El-Kef in west-central Tunisia over two days.

The operation led to the arrest of Makram Mouelhi, a “dangerous terrorist” wanted by the authorities in connection with several charges, including joining a terrorist organization and executing terrorist acts and murder, the Ministry added.

The authorities have also beefed up security in areas where terrorists are believed to be hiding.

Fifteen Tunisian soldiers were killed last Wednesday in an attack near the border with Algeria, when gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles attacked two military checkpoints near the Chaambi Mountains.

The attack represented the biggest death toll suffered by the Tunisian military in a single attack since the country became independent in 1956.

The military has been waging a crackdown in the border region over the past year to flush out Islamist militants, many of whom are reportedly linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat about the recent terrorist attack, Tunisian security sources said that at least 10 of 50 terrorists who carried out the operation were no more than 18 years old, while some others were less than 15 years old.

The sources added that the majority of the members of the terrorist group were previously residents of middle-class districts in the city of Kasserine in west-central Tunisia.

The attack has had a wide-ranging impact both in Tunisia and in neighboring countries. In Tunisia, it has given fresh impetus to a new counterterrorism draft law which is currently being debated by the Tunisian Constituent Assembly.

In neighboring Algeria, the attack has led the Algerian military to launch a large-scale search operation with ground and air forces in the province of Tébessa, just 12 miles (20 kilometers) west of the Tunisian border.

The Algerian security forces are reported to have doubled their patrols along the border, particularly after intelligence information indicated that the terrorist groups were planning to perpetrate attacks on Algerian soil during the current Muslim holy month of Ramadan to attract media attention.

In particular, the Algerian army’s counterterrorism units have executed helicopter-borne raids in the Bou Chebka area overlooking the Chaambi Mountains. The Algerian military’s activities come as part of coordination efforts between Algeria and Tunisia to combat terrorist groups by disrupting the movement of weapons and militants across the border, according to the agreements signed recently by the two governments.

Last Thursday, Algerian troops conducted operations in the territory between Khenchela and Tébessa to obstruct the infiltration of militants to and from Bou Dukhan Mountain on the border between the two provinces.

The Algerian–Tunisian security coordination comes amid fears across several North African countries over the potential fallout from the deteriorating security situation in neighboring Libya, where the escalating chaos and instability has led to growing fears that the country’s territory may become a base for terrorist groups and a source of weaponry.