Tunisia denies hosting US drone base
TUNIS - Tunisia on Thursday denied a US news report it has allowed Washington to operate unmanned planes from its territory for missions in neighbouring Libya against the Islamic State group.
"As part of Tunisian-US bilateral cooperation, we have acquired drones to train our military personnel to use this technology and to control our southeastern border with Libya and detect any suspicious movement" there, a defence ministry spokesman said.
But "Tunisian soil has never been and never will be used to strike targets in Libya. The drones are used by Tunisians and no one else," Belhassen Oueslati said.
The Washington Post on Wednesday reported that the Pentagon had "secretly expanded its global network of drone bases to North Africa, deploying unmanned aircraft and US military personnel to a facility in Tunisia to conduct spy missions in neighbouring Libya".
The "drones began flying out of the Tunisian base in late June" and "played a key role in an extended US air offensive against an Islamic State (jihadist group) stronghold" in Libya, the newspaper said.
Since August 1, the United States has carried out 351 air strikes in Libya in support of loyalist forces fighting to retake the coastal city of Sirte from IS, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) said on Thursday.
Tunisia's Defence Minister Farhat Horchani told the Mosaique FM radio station on Thursday: "We were one of the few first countries to oppose a foreign military intervention in Libya."
"We don't -- and won't -- have a foreign military base in Tunisia," he said.
An AFRICOM spokesman did not deny that US drones had taken off from Tunisia but said: "There are no US bases in Tunisia."
"There are US service members working with the Tunisian security forces for counter terrorism and they are sharing intelligence from various sources, to include unarmed aerial platforms," Colonel Mark R. Cheadle said.
Tunisia "requested additional military equipment and training from Washington after deadly militant attacks last year in Tunisia and the US has provided more than $250 million in security assistance".
Tunisia has suffered from a wave of jihadist violence since the 2011 revolt that ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
IS claimed brazen attacks last year on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis and a beach resort that killed a total of 59 foreign tourists.
In March, dozens of jihadists attacked security installations in the town of Ben Guerdane on the border with Libya.