Tunisia arrests 'first' regional Al-Qaeda suspects


TUNIS - Tunisia said Sunday it has arrested an Algerian and a Libyan in possession of explosives in the country's first arrests of suspected members of Al-Qaeda's north African offshoot.
The two men were detained in Nekrif, a town in the southern Tataouine region 130 kilometres (80 miles) from the Libyan border, officials said.
The Tunisian military has reinforced its presence in the area amid battles just across the border between Libyan rebels and government forces.
It was the "first arrest" in Tunisia of presumed members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an official said.
The two "were arrested Saturday at around three in the morning in possession of an explosive belt and a homemade bomb," the official said.
The arrests were "during a patrol of security forces but the Libyan refused to comply and he was injured" and hospitalised, he said.
Another official described the discovery of suspected AQIM militants in Tunisia as a "dangerous" development, the TAP news agency reported.
One of the suspects tried to set off a bomb before the arrests but it did not explode, the official news agency said.
The source cited by TAP said the arrival of two suspected foreign "terrorists" in Tunisia was worrying given the "current difficult conditions" in the country.
Tunisia remains unsettled following a wave a popular protests that began in December and led to the ouster on January 14 of former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.
The arrests were announced on state television in a banner that ran across the screen over regular programming.
Al-Qaeda's north African offshoot has Algerian origins and was, before January 2007, known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Its affiliation with the Al-Qaeda network was approved by Osama bin Laden, who was killed on May 2 in Pakistan during an operation by US forces.
Founded in 2007 by Abdelmalek Droukdal, AQIM defines its objective as Islamic revolution in the north African countries of the Maghreb and the Sahel. The group is on a US list of "terrorist" organisations.
Tunisian political scientist Slah Jorchi said the discovery of two members of AQIM in Tunisia was an "isolated case".
He added however "it could indicate that Tunisia could be targeted by the Al-Qaeda network given the state of security drift in the country."
Because Tunisia may be fertile ground for militant infiltration, "cooperation between the army, the security forces, the political forces and the citizens is more than necessary," Jorchi said.
The Tunisian interior ministry on Thursday called on citizens to report the "sheltering of foreign nationals" to the authorities.
This followed the arrest of two Libyans who came from Algeria and tried to return to their country carrying a homemade bomb, according to officials.
Those arrests were also in Tataouine, which hosts many refugees from the Libyan conflict.
In 2002 a synagogue in Djerba, in southern Tunisia, was struck by a bomb claimed by Al-Qaeda. The attack left 21 people dead, including 14 German tourists.
In early 2007 Tunisia declared it had neutralised a group linked to the Salafist organisation from which AQIM arose during battles near Tunis that left 14 dead.